McKenna backs out of ORDA board
LAKE PLACID – James McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, has stepped down from his appointment to the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s board after a state commission raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest.
“What I’m doing is pulling my name out of the running,” McKenna said. “It wasn’t anything personal. There is a process they go through.”
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics raised red flags over McKenna’s appointment to the ORDA board. Founded in 2011 by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the commission oversees ethics in the legislative and executive branches of New York government, including appointments to state authorities. The commission is comprised of 14 members appointed by the state Assembly, Senate and governor.
McKenna said the commission believed, because of his job at ROOST, he would have to recuse himself from too many ORDA board decisions and therefore, in his words, “wouldn’t be an active board member.”
ORDA manages the Winter Olympic facilities in the Lake Placid area as well as three state-owned ski areas: Whiteface in Wilmington, Gore in North Creek and Belleayre in the Catskills.
ROOST is in charge of tourism promotion and study for Essex County and has been hired to do the same for Hamiltion County, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
The North Elba town board had chosen McKenna and Andy Lack, the chairman of Bloomberg Media Group who owns a home in Lake Placid, to replace Vice Chairman Serge Lussi and board member Ed Weibrecht back in November. ORDA is not involved in the selection process.
Weibrecht and Lussi, Lake Placid hotel owners who have each served around 15 years on the board, are still on the board until their terms expire, as is customary. They will serve until the Senate approves the new members; Lack has not yet been approved. Both Weibrecht and Lussi were at the last quarterly ORDA board meeting.
According to the bylaws that govern the ORDA board, the governor appoints nine of its members, and North Elba can appoint the other three. One of the town’s picks is recommended to be the vice chairperson of the board. The board’s current chairman is Pat Barrett.
Conflict of interest?
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said McKenna was never officially rejected by the ethics commission; that decision could have taken several months of investigation. McKenna wrote a letter to Politi on May 8, withdrawing his name from the ORDA appointment.
“We heard it from the governor’s office that there was some potential for a conflict of interest,” Politi said.
McKenna said he is “disappointed in some ways” by the decision, but he also said it would free him up to have more time for other things.
Politi said the town board discussed the potential for conflicts of interest during McKenna’s appointment. Town Attorney Ron Briggs gave the opinion there was not a major conflict of interest, Politi said. Politi and McKenna both said they believe it wouldn’t have been much of a problem.
“They don’t take into consideration local issues when they do it,” McKenna said. “In my opinion, a lot of the things our organization (ROOST) does is in harmony with ORDA.”
McKenna is also a board member of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which seeks and prioritizes grant applications for all of northern New York; the Adirondack Council, an environmental group; and the Henry and Mildred Uihlein Foundation, which gives grants in the Lake Placid area.
ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin would not comment on the confirmation process.
“ORDA welcomes any individual that Albany confirms to its Board,” Lundin said in a written statement. “There is a process that is undertaken to confirm nominations and we are not going to comment on the specifics of the process.”
“Politics at its worst”
North Elba councilman Bob Miller and Derek Doty told the Enterprise they want the town and ORDA to work together for the success of the community, but they believe McKenna was singled out for political reasons – not a conflict of interest.
Doty and Miller said the way the state handled the appointment was suspicious.
“When we first inquired to the state (governor’s office) about the appointment, they said they didn’t get the names,” Doty said. “Then the second time, they said the names had been presented and everything looks fine.”
Later the commission said McKenna had a conflict of interest, and McKenna sent a letter to the board withdrawing himself. The town wanted the commission’s decision reviewed but has not heard back from the governor’s office yet, Doty and Miller said.
Both councilmen said they believe ORDA did not want McKenna appointed.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know someone in ORDA doesn’t want McKenna on the board,” Doty said. “This is politics at its worst.”
Miller said in 2012, before the town board appointed Lack and McKenna, ORDA’s CEO and president, Ted Blazer, spoke at a town work session urging them to reappoint the three current ORDA board members.
“I know why they didn’t want Jim. He’s bright, knows what’s going on at ORDA, and he wouldn’t be afraid to speak his mind for the community.” Miller said. “Those are our seats on the board. We need to protect the town of North Elba’s right to appoint people to that board.”
Lundin, asked Thursday night about these claims, did not give a response by press time.
Doty and Miller said they were ready to support McKenna’s appointment by going as far as revoking the annual $750,000 payment North Elba makes to ORDA. The town owns the Olympic Center and pays the authority to manage it.
Politi said Joe Lamb of Lake Placid is his choice to replace McKenna. The town board members are expected to discuss the appointment and may vote on a replacement at their next meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. At a previous board meeting, town officials met in executive session to discuss the ORDA board.
Contact Matthew Turner at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.