Richard Ball

New York State Ag Commissioner Richard Ball, center, meets with the steering committee working on an update to the Owasco Lake watershed rules and regulations Wednesday. 

AUBURN — State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball met privately with local officials in Auburn Wednesday to discuss revisions to the Owasco Lake Watershed's rules and regulations. 

The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council appointed a steering committee this year — made up of elected and government officials, farmers and lake advocates — to work on updating the 1984 document that stipulates what can and cannot be done in the watershed. Any changes to the rules and regulations must be approved by the state Department of Health, but other state agencies and local governments are part of the review process.

Following the meeting, Ball, the steering committee and others invited, spoke with The Citizen. 

"It's been an awesome conversation," Ball said. "I got the opportunity to be updated on where the process is and what it looks like. I think it's a very thoughtful process, well laid out. We've offered the help, resources of the department of agriculture, and I also offered (that) the state's interest in this is at a very high level, both DEC (the state Department of Environmental Conversation) and Ag and Markets, a keen interest along with the governor (Andrew Cuomo)."

Auburn City Councilor and steering committee member Debby McCormick said she was glad to hear the commissioner was supportive of the effort. In past meetings the council was concerned with whether the state health and agriculture departments would be, considering that other watersheds have been unsuccessful in update attempts.

"He offered for someone with Ag and Markets to work with us," McCormick said after the meeting. "It would be great. I think, if they're the big roadblock, having one of them on our team would be really good."

Kathleen Cuddy, director of the Cayuga County Health Department, said she understood Wednesday's meeting was organized due to comments made by Ball to The Citizen in October. Asked then during an Auburn appearance about the local effort to update the watershed's rules and regulations, the commissioner had suggested that county soil and water conservation districts should be leading the revision and not elected officials.

Cayuga County Legislature Chairman Keith Batman announced the commissioner's upcoming visit Tuesday night at the Legislature's meeting. When The Citizen showed up to report on the meeting, the reporter was escorted out, and the meeting was made private.

"There had been some questions that arose based on what was in The Citizen. Not knowing the direction the conversation would go, we thought it would lend to more open conversation," Cuddy said of the reasoning for keeping the meeting closed.

Robert Freeman, the executive director for the state committee on open government, said Wednesday that advisory bodies are not subject to the state Open Meetings Law unless they are creations of law. The meeting was intended, Cuddy said, to be a steering committee meeting with the commissioner, but others continued to be invited. 

Not on the steering committee but in attendance Wednesday was Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District Executive Director Doug Kierst. The Citizen asked Ball about the district's involvement, considering the conversation with Ball in October.

"I think the general agreement around the table is that things work better if we all work together," Ball said. "I think that's what we want to achieve here. Obviously we want to get it right. The governor has a very high level of interest in watersheds, in particular what's happening over here, so we're going to work together."

When asked whether he was working with other watersheds on updating their rules, Ball said, "I think this is just the beginning at looking at watersheds in a bigger way with a greater focus."

Following the mass interview, Kierst said he was hopeful that the district and other agencies will be more involved in the revisions process. 

"It sounds like our roles are coming up," he said. "It seems like we're going to be more involved a little more, which I think is a good thing."

Cuddy said the district also participated in the last steering committee meeting, as did the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program. The committee has held multiple meetings with stakeholders in the watershed, and is drafting rules and regulations based on those conversations and feedback collected from the public. Cuddy said the hope is to have something for the public's review in the spring. 

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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