Basil Goes Fishing
How, and Why, the Administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo Sought to Rid Itself of Dave Wick
By disposition, if not by design, Dave Wick is the local official least likely to become the center of a controversy.
He directed Warren County’s Soil and Water Conservation program for almost twenty years and in 2012, he was recruited to succeed Mike White as the executive director of the Lake George Park Commission.
Wick’s talent, a rare one, lies is combining practice with politics; engineering storm water controls, demonstrating the finer points of boat decontamination, while, at the same time, attracting and retaining the good will of elected officials and influential environmentalists.
If he suffers from existential anxiety or self-doubt, cynicism or an ironic sense of humor, it’s not evident. The earnest, self-confident demeanor that he wears at public meetings, in conferences with officials and in interviews with the local press, never falters.
So it must have come as a surprise to Wick when, on November 14, he was summoned to the State Capitol and told that he was to submit his resignation, immediately.
His inquisitor, Basil Seggos, must have been equally surprised when Wick replied, in so many words, that he’d rather not.
On November 14, Lake George Park Commission Executive Director Dave Wick was told to resign. On November 18, he was placed on administrative leave. On November 24, the state’s Inspector General released a letter to the Commission stating that Wick was under investigation for violating ethics rules. On November 25, after a meeting where dozens of people spoke in support of Wick, it was announced that he would return to work. What was it all about?
Basil Seggos is Deputy Secretary to the Governor for the Environment, a position that, in the current administration, empowers him to issue orders to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens and everyone else in that department.
(Remember when Kathy Moser, DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources and the co-chairman of New York State’s Invasive Species Council, told the Adirondack Park Agency in 2012 that DEC scientists do not believe that Asian Clams are introduced to water bodies solely, or even primarily, by boats and that “boat washing is not as effective as people think”? )
Evidently, Seggos also felt empowered to issue commandments to the Lake George Park Commission, nominally, at least, an independent agency.
When Seggos told the Lake George Park Commissioners to fire Wick after he refused to resign, they demurred setting the stage for a drama that ended with the administration retreating and assenting to the re-instatement of Wick after a two-week, unpaid leave of absence.
Seggos is an officer in the US Army Reserve and he likes to fish. He not only likes fishing, he’s passionate about it.
More so than he is about addressing the greatest threat to New York’s environment, invasive species, if his tweets are any indication.
Last summer, for instance, he published six tweets about fishing tournaments and the Governor’s programs to promote fishing and only two about invasive species. Neither of those two tweets were about the first mandatory inspection program east of the Mississippi, the one on Lake George. Rather, both concerned Governor Cuomo’s toothless legislation regarding the transport of aquatic invasive species.
That’s more relevant than it might appear. Much of the opposition to Lake George’s mandatory inspection program came, not so much from the anglers themselves (who have expressed support for an Adirondack Park program modeled on Lake George’s), but from those within the DEC and the Governor’s office, who presumed to speak for them.
The interests ascribed to the fishermen, who, we were told, were entitled to unlimited access to the lake, delayed the implementation of the program by a year and were accommodated with gaps in the plan that would have allowed fishermen to launch at state sites when no inspectors were on duty.
Lake George Village Mayor Bob Blais robbed New York of its excuses for inaction when, at a press conference held in June, 2013 in Bolton Landing, he announced that his group of elected officials and environmentalists would fund half the costs of the program and “invited New York State to join us, appropriating the other half from the general fund so as to avoid raising fees.”
The same group hired night watchmen to monitor the state launches, thereby sealing a gap in the lake’s new defenses which any number of invasives could have breached.
It’s been said, on good authority, that both these initiatives infuriated the Governor’s people, who felt they had been maneuvered into agreeing to a program which they had not initiated, and which they disliked, largely because it undermined a narrative that had been constructed for the Governor: that of a muscular Democrat, a friend to blue collar sportsmen and the savior of a recreation-based upstate economy.
The passage of the SAFE Act to control guns had already damaged Cuomo’s standing in upstate communities and with sportsmen, but no matter.
Perhaps because of the SAFE Act, Cuomo’s operatives had to work even harder to prove that the Governor was, as Seggos has been quoted as stating, “committed to maximizing opportunities for sportsmen and sportswomen.”
So while Wick was accused of many things – failing to communicate with the administration and communicating too frequently with the press, speaking at a conference without authorization, failing to report a gas leak from one of DEC’s boats, failing in his duty as the Commission’s ethics officer – the proximate or true cause of his attempted ouster was the administration’s irritation with Lake George’s mandatory inspection program.
Adding insult to injury, the program has been a success, demonstrating that a state-wide inspection and decontamination program could be equally successful.
Not only were Seggos and DEC executive deputy commissioner Marc Gerstman angered with Wick, so, too, was the Governor’s right hand man, Larry Schwartz, who gave his blessings to the ouster.
Lake George Park Commissioners, local government officials and environmentalists certainly appear to believe that it was Wick’s success in executing the inspection program that landed him in hot water.
Now, it should be noted that there are people close to the Governor’s aides who believe that Wick’s failure to report the gas spill to the proper authorities was sufficient grounds to dismiss him – “the Governor has a policy of Zero Tolerance,” the Commissioners were reportedly told – and that the aides’ personal and professional dissatisfaction with Wick had little to do with the Inspection Program.
That sounds plausible, until one recalls that in the statement issued by the Commission announcing that Wick would return to his job after a two-week suspension, no reference was made to the gas spill.
Instead, the Commission alluded only to the Inspector General’s investigation of the retirement party for Commissioner Tom Conerty aboard the Lac du St. Sacrement on September 11, an investigation that was, clearly, nothing but a different and equally specious reason for removing Wick.
Dave Wick is back at work. But even he must worry that his tenure is a fragile one; if so, he no doubt hopes that his efforts to protect Lake George from invasive species will be more durable.