Recent news articles revealed the salary paid Tom Durkin, the legendary and (and now-retired) track announcer for the New York Racing Association. Albany’s Times Union used the occasion to observe – correctly – that NYRA “needs to remember its obligation to the public when deciding how generous to be with salaries.”
At least we know what Durkin did for his money, and his performance was rated by tens of thousands of fans every time he called a race during a career that included Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup. Now that NYRA has released documents to me concerning the bonus and salary increase awarded CEO Chris Kay, we still do not know what he accomplished to warrant a quarter-million dollar bonus and a $9,000 pay increase.
When the NYRA Reorganization Board embarked on hiring a new CEO early in 2013, it was leery of fostering a perception that it was overly lavish with the salary since NYRA is now a state agency. Thus, it established a base salary of $300,000 with eligibility for a bonus of up to $250,000. The prior permanent CEO was paid $475,000 – a level criticized by Andrew Cuomo’s Budget Director, Robert Megna,. Megna, appointed by Cuomo to the NYRA Board, however, apparently had no problem with a level of compensation that was greater by $75K.
Now, I don’t have a problem with a salary in that range. What I do have a problem with is an agency of government being misleading, saying one thing and doing another. When the NYRA Board discussed the concept of a bonus, Chairman David Skorton – appointed by the Governor – assured the public it was a performance-based bonus based on metrics and that he was a hard grader. He also promised he would be “very public” about this.
The “very public” part did not mean the public would actually know what the CEO’s goals and performance measures would be. After the protracted refusal of NYRA to disclose that information, ending with a finding they were violating the public records law, they released the “Performance Metrics” for Kay. It is a vague document of less than a half-page containing nothing more than generalities, but again assures us that the CEO’s “performance will be reviewed annually against the goals set by the NYRA Board.” The NYRA Board never established any goals, let alone discuss them.
Yet this document is the only piece of paper having to do with the CEO’s goals – unless you count the cancelled check for $250.000. Nowhere is there a description of Kay’s specific goals and metrics, and obviously no explanation of how his performance measured against the non-existing standards.
The portion of the NYRA Board meeting at which Kay’s bonus and pay increase was announced took all of 80 seconds. Laughably, one of the factors cited in the Board announcement was Kay’s “fostering transparency.” No Board member mentioned any goals, nor was there a discussion in the 80 seconds allotted this topic.
Kay was asked about this during the September meeting of the Franchise Oversight Board, a state agency whose sole responsibility is to oversee and monitor NYRA’s performance. He was, shall we say, less than forthcoming about the fact that there was no documentation relating to his performance and the bonus. Board member Steven Newman pressed Kay on whether there were a written set of standards, stressing the importance of a public agency being transparent and accountable.
Kay danced around the issue without ever answering directly. He offered to provide a written statement from Chairman Skorton, although it is clear it would be something Skorton would have to create from scratch. The FOB Chairman, Rob Williams, said he would ask NYRA for the standards, but at no time did Kay acknowledge they did not exist. (Williams referred to the “Performance Metrics” piece of paper as being a “loose description” of goals.)
It’s not as though there are not significant issues that arose during Kay’s tenure that warrant extended discussion. One of the three areas that Kay stresses every time he speaks is his efforts to “enhance the guest experience.” It would be nice to know how his management of the fiasco that Belmont Stakes Day was for many fans factored into the bonus decision. Or, how the increase in admission and parking fees might have affected attendance and handle. Kay remarkably described those increases as an example of the enhanced guest experience he has brought to NYRA in his comments to the Franchise Oversight Board. It is not to that body’s credit that no one questioned Kay’s logic. (Board member Newman, who appears to be immune to Kay’s relentless spouting of nonsense, had left the meeting by this point.)
In the greater context, the secrecy and obfuscation surrounding the awarding of Kay’s bonus are not the most significant matters that face racing and breeding operations in New York. There is the upcoming matter of what form NYRA will take when the state-controlled entity expires less than a year from now. But if NYRA and the Governor’s appointees cannot be forthright about the relatively minor issue of the CEO’s pay and what he did to earn it, who can trust them when it comes to truly consequential decisions that will affect the livelihoods of tens-of-thousands of New Yorkers?