03/10/2016 2:36PM

Crist: Big Brother needed for NYRA board meetings


Racing’s worst reality-TV show returned to the airwaves after a three-month hiatus Thursday with a one-hour meeting of the New York Racing Association Reorganization Board. The largely government-appointed NYRARB was established by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012 to replace the old NYRA board he had dissolved. It has held 24 meetings, all of them streamed live on the Internet as part of Cuomo’s demands for “accountability” and “transparency.”

Thursday’s episode was no less contrived or more informative than its predecessors. Now in its fifth calendar year of existence, the NYRARB has yet to have a single meaningful public discussion regarding its sole reason to exist: its mandate to create a plan to return New York racing to private, nonprofit control. More than a year after its initial deadline to present such a plan, the board once again was silent Thursday while saying that the long-awaited plan will be presented for board approval as soon as next month. What’s in it is anyone’s guess.

This is accountability and transparency?

This is not the fault of the people installed on the board or in NYRA’s executive offices. By any metrics, New York racing is doing pretty well these days, especially when compared to some other prominent jurisdictions. Purses are up, fatal accidents are down, the racing product and simulcast presentation are strong, and handle on New York races has surpassed California’s as the nation’s highest.

The board meetings have become little more than staged recitations of these statistics, which are ultimately supposed to showcase the wisdom and success of the governor’s office. These self-congratulatory presentations leave little or no time for discussions of the organization’s or the sport’s future, or for issues the wagering public actually cares about, such as takeout rates and withholding-tax reform.

Will Aqueduct remain in business? Will Belmont be renovated as a year-round facility? What, if anything, will replace the defunct OTB system in New York City? Will there ever be another Breeders’ Cup in New York? The answers to these questions, far from transparent, remain entirely opaque.

Instead, the board wastes its time on items such as Thursday’s lengthy discussion of whether NYRA should endorse the proposed Tonko-Barr bill to establish a national anti-doping regulatory authority. The Jockey Club-backed bill has failed to gather a critical mass of support within the industry or much interest in the halls of Congress, and lobbyists say it has less than a 1 in 100 chance of even being introduced. The board voted to back it anyway because, as one board member put it, “We can support it without spending any money.”

After the board spent 20 minutes discussing whether to support a dead-on-arrival piece of legislation, it devoted roughly two minutes to the report of its long-term planning committee. That committee said it will finally make its recommendations next month in the form of a reorganization plan, proposed legislation, and a business plan, which will be presented to the board “for approval.”

Even after years of sloth, this seems hasty and presumptuous. Will anyone outside the board, such as the sport’s customers and participants, be given a chance to weigh in? Will the plan be pre-approved, and to what extent was it authored, by the governor’s office? To what extent will state bureaucrats, rather than racing people, continue to make the rules?

Decision-making regarding the future of New York racing has never been less transparent, and it is folly to think that broadcasting board meetings accomplishes anything. Real businesses conduct their board meetings in private and argue their way through disagreements. Of course the NYRARB meetings seem fake because no one is going to discuss things like competitive business strategies or personnel issues with the public listening in. The illusion that business is being conducted in clear public view actually accomplishes the opposite of its supposed purpose: It limits and discourages frank discussion.

The myth of transparency moves from disingenuous to dangerous when it means that there is in fact no meaningful public discussion of the future. Like other reality-TV shows, this one is scripted and insincere, promulgating the fiction that the public is getting an insider’s view of something real.