It would have been needlessly antagonistic for me to have told the Ulster 2040 working group meeting on the sixth floor of the Ulster County office building in Kingston early last Thursday afternoon that I’d been thrown out of more important meetings than theirs, but I have to admit I had been tempted to say that. I would have meant my remark in good humor, but I’m not sure it would have been received that way.
What should the need for privacy be in a group whose primary goal is, in county executive Pat Ryan’s words in appointing its members back in September, “to align and focus the county’s economic, workforce and community development investments toward a set of targeted focus sectors, and to identify the necessary steps to ensure that all county residents will benefit from a growing and changing economy?” Sounds like a subject for open discussion to me. Why shouldn’t government-sponsored discussions of such important subjects be completely transparent?
In this Ulster 2040 meeting, the word “comfortable” was used a lot. One member of the task force, which has been asked to deliver its final report next May, said at the meeting last week that she wasn’t comfortable with the prospect of a reporter quoting what she said. Another worried what might be reported if she changed her mind.
An informal discussion ensued until task force member Evelyn Wright, who in mid-January will become the third deputy county executive in the Ryan administration, made a motion asking me to leave the room while they discussed the matter of my attendance. They expected to take about 15 minutes, group facilitator Tim Weidemann said. I left.
As I waited outside the meeting room, Pat Ryan appeared. He and I had a short discussion. Ryan was letting the task force take the initiative in the aligning, focusing and identifying. He deliberately “didn’t express too many of his own ideas,” he said. Leading from behind, Ryan has so far preferred to let the task force come up with recommendations.
The county exec has a more developed perspective of the “set of targeted focus sectors” for which he is asking than the members of his task force have yet shared. He’s certainly thought about the subject a lot. I told him that maybe it was time for him to make his own views known. He has a lot of ideas.
He agreed that Ulster County’s relationship with New York City should be an important part of the task force’s deliberations. He’s a great fan of workforce development.
I told him I thought that the sessions should be open to reporters. On that topic, Ryan was non-committal at best, saying he had thought “we struck a good balance” in terms of public participation. Or lack thereof.
An emissary from the working group emerged with the expected news. She told me the task force had decided not to let me observe the proceedings.
The evening before, there had been an open public meeting in the legislative chambers about Ulster 2040. After a short speech of appreciation for their participation by Ryan, the attendees had gone through a truncated version of the popular SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) tool that the Ulster 2040 group had gone through on November 14. The exercise provided a sense of the sharing experience, a sort of SWOT Light.
The 20-person audience, split into three small groups, was assigned to list Ulster County’s weaknesses on Post-Its. A member then read the assembled Post-Its aloud to the entire audience, and facilitator Weidemann praised their offerings and stuck each group’s work products on a board.
Ditto for Ulster County’s strengths.
Weidemann said the Post-It contributions would be a useful part of the Ulster 2040 process. He thanked the participants, and adjourned the public meeting. The next one is scheduled for February 5, 2020, probably at 5:30 p.m. in the same place.
A little recent Ulster County history is useful. In 2013, county executive Mike Hein created a $500,000-a-year Accountability, Compliance and Efficiency division within the county finance department. Columnist Hugh Reynolds at that time described the five-person ACE as “a kind of flying financial squad” to ride herd on the privatization of the county infirmary and then do other things. Though county comptroller Elliott Auerbach, with whom Hein was feuding, claimed his office could do the ACE job just as well for half the price, the new division was established.
In mid-2019, new county executive Pat Ryan
decided he could improve efficiency in county government by dissolving ACE, famously firing its then-head, Lisa Cutten. “I saw an opportunity to repurpose an existing team, the ACE, that had significant overlap with the comptroller’s office,” reporter Jesse Smith quoted Ryan as writing. “County taxpayers should not have to pay twice for the same service.”
On July 2 Ryan formed an “innovation team” headed by director Tim Weidemann, whose extensive experience “driving change” would help take county government to the next level, said Ryan. In the 2020 county budget, Weidemann’s team was listed as part of the county finance department, which because of ACE’s dissolution remained at 28 positions (the department’s annual payroll dropped $4000 in 2020 to $1,779.428). The innovation director’s annual salary is $97,385, and an additional $88,215 is budgeted for a deputy director of innovation.
On September 13 Suzanne Holt, county economic development director under Hein, resigned, soon to be replaced by workforce director Lisa Berger. Economic development became its own department rather than remaining part of the planning department.
Much of Weidemann’s energy in the past half-year has been spent on Ulster County’s economic development, the most complex and most elusive of Ryan’s Big Five goals for 2020. What ACE was doing was very different from what Weidemann is doing. ACE’s coordination was for the most part within county government. Weidemann’s is more outward-directed — county government and beyond.
Ryan thinks that every entity involved in Ulster County economic development should at the very least know what the other such entities are up to. The county’s economic development and innovation departments, workforce development, the Industrial Development Agency, the county legislature committee responsible for economic development, the county executive’s office, the Ulster 2040 task force, SUNY at Ulster and at New Paltz, the Economic Development Alliance, the town supervisors and mayors, and possibly even private groups such as chambers of commerce all have roles to play.
That’s why I think discussions about whether meetings should be closed or open are a waste of time. Confidentiality obviously has its place in economic development, but not at the level of communication, goals and policy.
That’s my message, whether delivered inside or outside.
The problem with governmental control over who should participate in the analysis of economic-development options in Ulster County is that it takes the eye off the real goal, the process of identification of targeted focus sectors. I fully expect the 2040 task force to come up with a set of recommendations by May 2020. But will they be the right ones?