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NYRA's David Skorton: Transparency an "honest messy"

NYRA's David Skorton: Transparency an "honest messy"

Warts and all. That’s the promise from David Skorton, New York Racing Association board of directors

Warts and all.

That’s the promise from David Skorton, New York Racing Association board of directors chairman, who says he’ll usher in transparency for the traditionally secretive organization that runs thoroughbred racing at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. The change is driven by a government takeover of the board last summer after a rash of thoroughbred deaths at Aqueduct and the erroneous withholding of millions from winning bets.

“There may be times where it is messy,” Skorton said of the new openness, “but it’s an honest messy.”

Restoring honesty to the operation was one of the major rationales of Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year, when he advanced legislation for a state takeover of NYRA. He argued, and Skorton agrees, that decisions affecting the public, like the safety of racing and the amount being paid out on winning bets, need to be executed within the sight of the public.

For the next three years, NYRA will be run by a 17-member reorganization board that includes 12 government appointees.

Robert Freeman, director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, described the new blood as “significant government control.” That control of the board and the language of the legislation that created it led Freeman to conclude that NYRA is subject to the open meetings and freedom of information laws.

Adherence to the Open Meetings Law means making board and committee meetings open to the public, announcing when and where meetings will be held and making minutes from a meeting available to the public. The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requires publicizing voting records and ensures accessibility to all records except those that fall into sensitive categories such as information that would impair business negotiations.

Freeman’s interpretation of NYRA’s obligations is not legally binding. Because the board still exists in a quasi-governmental fashion, he said only the courts could decide that open government laws apply to NYRA.

The previous NYRA Board and management team fought with state regulators over disclosing top salaries, closely guarded its big spending and was contentious with the media.

Under the leadership of Skorton, NYRA has promised to follow the letter and spirit of open government laws.

“In general the philosophy will be to be open,” Skorton said.

This is a philosophy he’s familiar with because of his background in public academia, where meetings are open and officials are scrutinized heavily. He serves as president of Cornell University and recently served as co-chair of a state regional economic council.

The new guiding principle debuted in practice with the first meeting of the new board. That meeting, and the second, were open to the public and broadcast live on the Internet. The Internet broadcast in December got 1,636 visitors and last month’s got 1,935.

For John Hendrickson, open board meetings, disclosing documents and a new attitude are a welcome change. He previously served on the NYRA board and is a special Saratoga Springs adviser to the new board. He was beating the drums for more transparency before the state takeover and was pleased with the interest in the first two meetings.

“What were we afraid of? There’s nothing to hide,” Hendrickson said. “It’s great to involve the public. These are the people’s tracks.”

Transparent operations could be an evolving process, but he said the board is excited about the change, even if it changes the dynamic at meetings. “The first meeting people were on their best behavior. It wasn’t like the [old] meetings,” Hendrickson said, commenting on the cordiality.

A major test of this openness could arise with the disclosure of financial information.

In recent years NYRA’s executive staff declined to hand over salary information to state overseers, but eventually accepted limited disclosure. Even since the adoption of the new board, outgoing NYRA President Ellen McClain was reluctant to publicize salary information, but ultimately signaled she would concede to more disclosure.

Freeman said it is his belief that the salaries of NYRA employees should be subject to FOIL, based on disclosures from similarly structured nonprofit corporations.

Responding to some initial stumbles with the spirit of openness, Skorton said, “We’re working our way though all these issues.”

As for other financial information, like records of commercially sensitive topics and negotiations with unions, he said there are privacy protections. These were some of the issues that Freeman briefed NYRA staff on during an open government training session at the end of January.

Skorton said they plan on sharing as much information as possible, with their decisions always guided by a philosophy of openness.

“It does take time to learn a philosophy, but I’ve had no serious resistance,” he said. “It’s definitely a work in progress.”

Another potential test is how the board conducts its search for a new CEO. This person will be responsible for running day-to-day racing operations. Skorton said there will be some aspects of the search kept confidential, with privacy and contract negotiations exempt from public disclosure.

That search also has symbolic meaning, because it’s to replace Charlie Hayward, who was fired last year for his role in the takeout scandal and before that butted heads with state overseers about disclosure.

The board’s committee meetings are also something that need to be reviewed with consideration of the Open Meetings Law, which Freeman said requires disclosure of when and where the committees will meet. Committee meetings so far have been informally acknowledged, but no public information was released about their existence. This is an area where Skorton said they’re still learning and repeated his plans to have all decisions made by the full board.

NYRA won’t be the only one sharing under this new dynamic. This summer at the Saratoga Race Course, Hendrickson and board member Charles Wait, also of Saratoga Springs, will hold a hearing where people can offer input.

Hendrickson predicted the event will draw passionate racing fans. “There has to be a way for customers to comment,” he said.

Skorton added that there will also be a chance for fans to comment at either Aqueduct or Belmont, with that proposal still being developed. He said consideration had been given to a comment period during board meetings, but based on the length of the first two meetings that didn’t seem practical.

Additionally, Skorton said the media’s reporting on NYRA and thoroughbred-related issues is beneficial to him, which is why he wants the media to have access to as much information as possible.

The Gazette has begun submitting Freedom of Information requests to NYRA’s records access officer and should start receiving responses in about a month.

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