You’d think members of the public would be considered “stakeholders” in the future of the woefully inadequate public rail system that purports to serve the East End? We pay for it with our tax dollars and fares.
Apparently, however, the Long Island Railroad and Assemblyman Fred Thiele think otherwise.
Thiele convened a “stakeholders” meeting to discuss a “LIRR Network Strategy Study” on Friday afternoon. The public was specifically not invited and, as the only member of the press in the room, I was told at the outset I had to leave.
The annual public payroll represented in the Riverhead Town Hall meeting room Friday afternoon would go a long way toward solving at least some of the railroad’s equipment problems.
Besides Thiele, there was State Senator Ken LaValle, Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, County Legislator Al Krupski, County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Supervisor Scott Russell, Supervisor Sean Walter, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, Supervisor Larry Cantwell, and smattering of town council members and representatives of the East End Villages. Some of the elected officials brought staff members. Some of the towns brought their planning directors and staff members. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s district director was also there.
Then there were the public employees on the LIRR’s $742.7 million annual payroll. Among the attendees, I was told, was LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski, from which it is reasonable to conclude other high-level LIRR officials were also on hand. Since 134 LIRR employees earn base salaries in excess of $200,000 per year, I’d venture a conservative guess that the LIRR payroll alone in the room that day could solve more than a few public transportation problems in our region.
I’d venture to guess that I, along with Southold Transportation Commission volunteer Neb Brashich (and maybe a few other transportation committee volunteers from the East End towns) were the only people not on the public payroll in that room. There might have been some private consultants on hand — the folks who profit from the endless planning that goes on — but we’ll never know, because we weren’t allowed in.
It’s really very telling that our elected officials think the “stakeholders” are limited to members of government, both elected and unelected, and whoever else was on Thiele’s undisclosed “invitation list” Friday.
These are public funds being spent on the public’s business. Yet the public is excluded.
Why? Simply put: because they can. The open meetings law doesn’t apply to a meeting like that, as Fred Thiele well knows.
But let’s be clear, there’s no legal reason why they can’t let the public or the press attend a meeting like that. So why not, then?
That’s what I asked Fred, whom I’ve known for, oh, 30 years or so, on Friday afternoon when he told me I had to leave. Of course I didn’t leave quietly, though I didn’t dig in my heels and have him call the police to escort me out. I’m regretting that a little.
Luckily, I had switched on my recorder, since it’s hard to take good notes while you’re being kicked out of a meeting.
“This is a by invitation meeting, so if you are on the invitiation list or you were invited by a town or village, you belong here…Is there anybody here from the press?” he asked. I identified myself straightaway.
“It’s not open to the press,” Thiele said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the railroad asked to have a meeting with us and we’re having a meeting,” he said, adding, “I mean we do this all the time.”
“I know that’s how things go in Albany—” I started to answer.
“I’d be glad to…uh… glad to tell you about the results of the meeting when it’s over but it just wasn’t set up that way,” Thiele replied, “and I apologize.”
“Who’s on the invitation list then?” I asked. “Who are the stakeholders?”
“It’s elected officials from the East End and the railroad and the planning people from the towns, basically, that are involved with transportation and that’s basically it. We wanted to have a frank discussion with the RR and that’s what we’re going to do,” Thiele answered.
“Which you feel you cannot have in public? I mean, why? Why would the meeting have to be closed?” I pressed.
“Because we want to have a frank discussion with the railroad,” he repeated.
“You know, listen, the outcome of this meeting we’ll be glad to report to you, OK? But that’s the way the meeting was set up and I’m going to follow the rules.”
“Whose rules? Was that was at the request of the railroad?” I asked.
“I’m not going to — it was at my request, ok? I’m not going to put it on anybody else,” Thiele answered.
“I find it kind of objectionable considering how long this has been going on and these same discussions have been taking place. Honestly, no offense, but the versions of things that come out of people after meetings are not necessarily an accurate depiction of what goes on,” I said.
“And that’s why it’s great fun to be a reporter,” Thiele answered. “I’m going to take the responsibility for this. That’s the way the meeting was set up. I note your objection and I will gladly talk to you after the meeting.”
As a reporter, I could use a little less “fun” — or at least the kind of fun the assemblyman imagines it must be to try to hold the government accountable to the people it theoretically serves. (I called Thiele on his cell phone Friday afternoon about an hour after the meeting’s scheduled end, and left a message. I’m waiting for his return call.)
A meeting to plan for more planning
The printed agenda distributed to the 50 or so attendees — a copy of which I suppose I wasn’t supposed to get, but took — includes a report on the current transportation needs of the East End, the short- and long-term needs on both forks and a “network strategy discussion” consisting of “overview” and “LIRR Long Range Planning Process.”
So in the end, was this a planning meeting to discuss a process for planning a strategy going forward? Certainly sounds like a top secret topic to me.
As a stakeholder, here’s my frank statement to the Long Island Railroad:
Your service on the North Fork sucks. So much so, it’s nearly useless. It’s only good for shuttling some people back and forth to NYC some of the time, and nothing else. You seem to want to get away with providing as little service as possible here after your attempt to cut us off altogether was thwarted by public protest.
And the trains you do run have too few cars to serve our needs in the peak season.
The Saturday, July 2 Ronkonkoma to Greenport train, for example, had only three passengers, according to one rider. With a reported 400 passengers on board, it was standing-room only.
To get any kind of meaningful service to and from the city, we have to drive to Ronkonkoma— a car trip of 45 minutes to an hour. Or take a westbound train from a local station and find another way home, like the Jitney.
Elected officials for decades have been having these discussions, commissioning many millions of dollars worth of studies and holding press conferences alternatively to complain or pat themselves on the back. Nothing ever changes. Except the cost of it all just keeps going up and up.
If these folks don’t know by know what needs to be done, they need to have a “frank discussion” with the real stakeholders in this fiasco to explain why not.
Denise Civiletti is an owner of East End Local Media Corp., publishers of RiverheadLOCAL and SoutholdLOCAL. An award-winning reporter, including a “Writer of the Year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015, she is an attorney, former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991) and former co-publisher and executive editor of The Suffolk Times. The views expressed in this column are hers alone.
Send Denise an email.