A group of anti-aquarium constituents packed the gallery of the Onondaga County Legislature chambers on Aug. 2 as legislators voted on the aquarium. Credit: Chris Libonati | libonati@centralcurrent.org

When Onondaga County Legislator Mark Olson cast his vote for the $85 million aquarium, he didn’t have to face a gallery packed with critics. He voted from the Jersey Shore. 

While Olson’s chair was empty at the Aug. 2 session, the Legislature largely glossed over Olson’s absence. 

He voted remotely because of rule modifications built into Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive order declaring Covid-19 a disaster emergency. The executive order allows legislators to attend public meetings remotely.

In a twist, Olson and his fellow legislators voted at the very same meeting to abolish the practice in the County Legislature once the executive order ends, except in cases of illness or emergency.

One of Olson’s constituents, Mary Cunningham, attended the vote. She said she wanted to go to both speak against the aquarium and witness for herself her representative vote for a project she believes has little community support.

The measure passed 9-8 and Cunningham wasn’t able to do either.

Chairman Jim Rowley kept the public comment period limited to 30 minutes and Olson wasn’t there. She said she had hoped he would attend because of the “really once-in-a-lifetime amount of money” at stake.

Olson defended his decision to keep his vacation plans and vote virtually.

“Their frustration should be with the governor for extending [the order],” Olson said. “If she hadn’t extended it then I wouldn’t have been able to vote and I wouldn’t have been at the meeting.”

Wednesday’s vote was one of the most consequential and contentious decisions the Legislature has made. It approved $85 million in one-shot funding that opponents argued should have funded more lead abatement and safe housing.

Olson and 16th District Legislator Charles Garland’s at-the-buzzer decisions were key in passing the aquarium. 

Olson said he got his out-of-town vote pre-approved by the county’s law department. He kept his screen on for the entirety of the meeting, he said. He noted that other legislators have attended meetings while on vacation.

“I think that’s why we stopped this, why the chairman came up with this new rule that it has to be something more than just a vacation. You have to be sick, you have to be taking care of a family member,” Olson said. “Basically, it has to be an excused absence.”

Had pre-pandemic rules been in place, Olson said he would have had to miss the meeting altogether.

He has planned the same vacation for the same week with his extended family for the last 18 years, he said. The legislator said he plans to book the vacation for the same week next year. 

Olson appeared to be undecided leading up to the vote.

He said he made a list of pros and cons before the vote, coming up with 18 on the positive side and and six negatives.

Olson said his experience as the mayor of Fayetteville helped lead him to vote for the project. He’s experienced opposition to projects that constituents grew to like after they were completed. 

The legislator said he researched Baltimore’s National Aquarium, which he thought helped beautify the city’s Inner Harbor. He said he believes Syracuse’s aquarium will boost economic development in the Inner Harbor, push tourism to hotels and Destiny USA, and educate children.

Olson also said he personally heard from fewer than 100 constituents about the aquarium, in a district of 27,000.

“I just want people to enjoy this and I want it to be a success,” he said. 

MOre on the aquarium

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Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.