Commentary by Matthew Katz
I want to talk about the RIOC Board of Directors, specifically the six resident members, five of whom were endorsed by the community for gubernatorial appointment. There has been little formal contact between those Directors and us, the residents who voted for them, and I wanted to offer a suggestion. But first, a little history:
I was deeply involved in the transition from a RIOC Board of Directors that included, at best, two Islanders, to a Board that, at one time, boasted seven resident members, six of whom were chosen through community-wide plebiscite. To recap: A small group of Island activists known as the Maple Tree Group (MTG) met with Governor George Pataki in 2002 through the good offices of our then-State Senator, Olga Mendez. As a result of that meeting, Gov. Pataki modified the legislation that created RIOC in 1984 to require its Board of Directors to include a majority of Island residents. Prior to that, RIOC business was conducted by carpetbaggers who showed up on-Island for their monthly meetings, voted in lockstep and then, left.
We thought that residents who were stakeholders in the quality of life and the future of this community could do a better job of focusing RIOC, a New York State Public Authority, on issues important to us. We were right. In 2007, Governor Eliot Spitzer, through his RIOC President appointee, Steve Shane, provided an opportunity to choose those resident Directors at the polls, and it took the MTG almost a year to create the process and to persuade some of our neighbors to take on the onerous task of running for office, being vetted by the State and then, spending the many hours that this volunteer position requires. The responsibility for maintaining this stab at democracy then fell to your RIRA Common Council to facilitate, and RIRA has produced four elections starting in 2008.
I’m proud of the work done by our resident Directors. It is demanding and, like any public service, is prone to continuous criticism and precious little applause. Keep in mind that these folks, all professional people, have families and jobs and lives away from RIOC, and are in no way compensated for their efforts. However, when we created the mandate for resident representation, it was our intention that the four-year terms required by the law that created RIOC would be honored and that, as each term ended, the seat-holder would be required to return to the community to make a case as to why they should continue as a Director. That hasn’t happened. Every resident seat has expired and Governor Andrew Cuomo has continued their service without the validation of a democratic election. Further, one Cuomo appointee, not a resident but representing the Child School in a blatant political appointment, lasted on the job for 20 months and resigned when his position with the school ended. That seat has been vacant now for just over two years. We have suggested appointments from the community in two 2012 elections, but this Governor works overtime to ignore us.
If rubber-stamping contracts were this Board’s only function, then the carpetbaggers of old were adequate to the job. But this Board has questioned RIOC initiatives on our behalf and even fired a RIOC president when his positions came up against Board opposition. Whether you agreed with that move or not, clearly a proactive presence by our neighbors was the reason we jumped through hoops to place them in a position of authority. But, without the regular assessment that regular elections would provide, we have had no direct contact with our representatives to the Operating Corporation and this is a grievous omission. A case in point: When the RIRA Public Safety Committee organized the rallies that eventually cost Keith Guerra his job as Public Safety Director, our neighbors on the Board were silent.
Sure, we bump into resident Directors in hallways, on elevators and on Main Street. We can speak to the Board at their monthly meetings. But I’m talking about a formal Town Meeting, without ex officio representatives of the State Departments of Housing and the Budget and without RIOC staff present, just us Roosevelt Islanders, where we can discuss issues amongst ourselves. I know how busy these Directors are, but I would like them to organize these meetings (Annually? Semi-annually? Their call.) as a required function of their position. After all, we didn’t create (and we didn’t come out in large numbers to vote for) a Board that acts in secret. If we wanted a Board of Directors whose primary allegiance was to New York State and their “fiduciary responsibility,” we already had that with the political appointments that preceded our referenda. Keep in mind that every dime of the RIOC operating budget is generated on-Island; not a dime comes from State taxes. The $1.6 million State subsidy to RIOC was zeroed-out almost 20 years ago. Our goal was a Board a majority of whose members’ first loyalty was to the constituents who elected them.