Charlene Indelicato: This is actually sort of hard. There are aspects of this job that I absolutely love. I want it on the record that I love my Board.
WIRE: You inherited a community that had a strained relationship with RIOC and there wasn’t a lot of trust in either direction.
CI: In truth there are some members of the public who are not to be trusted because of actions. There is a large portion of the public who don’t care. They go to work, they come home; they have other things in their lives. That’s a very reasonable position. Then there are other people who really, really care.I have found a number of people on Roosevelt Island who are extremely dedicated to doing things and helping government or whatever agency is doing something and seeing them as a partner. And that’s really what’s best. I think a lot has been accomplished.
I will say that when I first came here one of the biggest issues on my plate was, in addition to the situation with Public Safety, Cornell. It had not even been started as a negotiation. In truth, I started negotiating prior to coming here. The Roosevelt Island Community Coalition [RICC] was unbelievably helpful. They gave me a position paper and a briefing paper basically as to what the issues were. It was very factual. It laid out what I would have to deal with. I must say that between RICC and [RIOC Board member] Howard Polivy, and actually the whole Board, we would not have gotten what we have gotten in the contract.
W: You mean barging?
CI: A lot of that part was done. [Former Council member] Jessica Lappin did a fine job. It was putting that into a workable agreement. It’s sort of like, the concepts were there; I had nothing to do with that part. It was RICC and Jessica [Lappin] and a number of other people who really handled the conceptual.
But the contract, the agreement itself, because of the surrounding area; in fact I think [RIOC Board member] Margie [Smith] and the [RIOC] Board were instrumental in changing the language in that it would be considered not just a throw-away-given but would be a negotiation. That set the bar. That set the whole program clearly. But for that, and but for RICC, the agreement would not be as good as it is. And some people may disagree as to whether it’s good or not. The fact is, and money aside, because in truth those issues could not be solved by money. Traffic problems could not be solved by money. You could put as much money as you want into it and those trucks are going to be there.
W: There’s one street.
CI: Exactly. So looking at RICC’s list, it wasn’t a money list, really; it was a quality of life list.
W: What do you consider your signature accomplishments?
CI: Other than Cornell, there are three things that, with a lot of help, I’ve accomplished. I don’t think that anybody does anything alone. It would be solving the Public Safety situation in the sense of bringing Jack [McManus] in [as Chief of Public Safety]. And then Jack bringing Linda [Marmara] in [as his Deputy]. It was a fit.
I didn’t know Jack beforehand. I worked for Guidepost [Solutions] long ago and I asked them for help. I gave them all of the specifications. I wanted a community police person. I got a community police person, but I also got a kind and compassionate man who I like very much and I don’t think anybody would disagree. Do I get credit for hiring somebody that’s really good? Well, I hope so!
W: I think so.
The Cultural Center
CI: So that’s one very very fine accomplishment. And Cornell, with the help of the Board and RICC and the State, we got an agreement that was workable. I think that the relationship with Cornell is one more of collaboration, and eventually integration, than it is anything else. And we’re almost at the completion of that. Last thing I would point to, which is still a work in progress, is the Cultural Center.
CI: Where else would you get the Muslim society, two Jewish communities, an Evangelical church, the Main Street Theatre; and all of these groups using it at the same time. It’s not world peace, but I have to say again, it’s a major thing. It took a lot of movement by a lot of people. It was about having the mindset of cooperation. It was a learning experience for all of us. Before the renovation, there weren’t as many people using it. Now there are a lot more people, and a lot more groups coming in. There have been issues with the floors and stuff and we are going to get that done. We are just now going to the community to pick some dates; we’re going to need a month to get them to fix the floor.
W: Have you actually officially announced that you’re leaving yet?
CI: I will make a formal announcement. I am leaving on the 18th.
W: What’s been the worst thing about the job?
CI: The commute is brutal. It is just a brutal trip. There was a recent Monday where it was raining and it took me 2½ hours to get home. It took me 2½ hours to get in and 2½ hours to get home.
W: You were going to move here originally, weren’t you?
CI: The State sort of implied that when I took the job but then that implication was not correct. I wanted to. I would have. I just couldn’t afford it.
W: What is the best thing about the job?
CI: The best thing about the job was the job itself. I enjoy municipal management. It is very rewarding. Added to what will be accomplished very soon, we almost have an agreement with the ferry. For that, I would really, really like to compliment Seth Meyers of the City. Not the comedian. He’s with ECD [New York City Economic Development Corporation]. We almost have an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] done. We are going to have to do some maintenance of the pier and they’re going to do an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] and a traffic study to see if we can get any mitigating measures.
W: Will the ferry terminal be at the oil dock?
CI: Yes. They are going to make a platform barge. They’ve looked at it. They know what they’re doing.
Meditation on Local Government
W: In terms of your successor what issues will they be dealing with that you’re in the middle of?
CI: Susan Rosenthal [acting RIOC President as of Indelicato’s departure] has been instrumental in the ferry too. She’s up to speed on many, many of the issues. Remember, what I do is really a reflection of a policy of the Board. My job is to implement. There are decisions that I make but they’re decisions; they’re not issues; they’re not policy.
Basically, the assumption you make is everybody [in the community] is right. But then you have to decide where you’re going to make everybody unhappy. It’s like the lights on the field. We had a discussion about the lights on the field. The people who want to sleep want the lights off at 8:00 pm. The kids and parents who want to play on the field want it 11:00 pm. So where do you go with that? You’re wrong no matter what you do. You go in the middle and nobody’s happy. But you go in the middle because it’s more judicious.
That’s local government. You’re always making a whole bunch of people unhappy trying to do the best thing. Much of our work here is that. It is sort of refereeing. That’s why the Cultural Center was such a big success. One of the things I am going to be sorry that I can’t see through, although we put it on the agenda at least to start the process, is the sea railings. And at least we’re starting the process now.
The pipeline, except for the risers, is done. And z-bricks are going to be replaced. What ConEd had to do, because the z-brick place we used went out of business and we only had a finite amount left, they made a new cast. And we’re going to get the cast at the end. The judicious thing (now I won’t be here, just my opinion), when they’re done, would be a DOT [Department of Transportation] road. A DOT road is not z-bricks.
The Red Busses
Another thing that we did that was not my idea, was the bus being free again. It was Cy’s idea. He said, ‘Look, you know you can’t raise the fare. Anyway you’d have to raise it to $2 to make it feasible, which is stupid.’
So what we did in order to make up the money – in fact, we got written up in Crain’s [Crain’s New York Business] and the Wall Street Journal about it – was to raise the parking meters and raise the tickets for non-residents in Motorgate. So we made up the money for that and now we have free buses. We saved money, actually, by doing it that way. Cy [Opperman, Director of Operations at RIOC] was absolutely right. It makes sense because we’re not supposed to have so many cars here and you can get back and forth with so much ease taking the bus.
When the Tram comes, you’ll have a bus waiting. When it’s not there, we hear it! We have tracking, we know exactly where the bus is, but sometimes they get stuck. Cy runs it great.
W: What issues do you see impacting Islanders’ lives in the future?
CI: Obviously Cornell. I think Cornell will be very, very good. I think they have started to integrate, as has Four Freedoms. I think a lot of that goes back to the delineation of their permits.
When I came in, why I am hated by some people, I put rules in and tried to be as fair as possible. But people don’t like rules because they’re used to getting special treatment. And when you go down the middle, you’re going to make enemies. So people sometimes get aggravated but I think it helps it move forward.
One of the failures that I absolutely own up to is the [Tramway] elevators. We put it out for a design build and we didn’t get any takers. Then we put it out again with WASA [one of the country’s oldest architecture and engineering firms, whose predecessor designed Grand Central Terminal train station].
Now WASA is one of the biggest engineering companies in the world, they’re internationally known, it’s not only price, it’s responsibility. We’ve been guilty, like a lot of municipalities, of going with the lowest bid, versus the lowest responsible bid. So now we’re looking toward the lowest responsible bid. So with WASA, this renowned company who does elevators, they’re 90% done [with the Tramway elevator plan] so when we’re waiting for the last percentage, to open up the paper and read that WASA went under. It’s like, I can’t believe this. Can’t believe it.
We have it back on track and it’s more than back on track because one of our biggest issues was New York City and how they would feel. They approved the footprint conceptually and so pretty much now we can get it done. It’s slightly bigger and a different configuration.
W: How do you think RIRA [the Roosevelt Island Residents Association] and RIOC should work together? And how does RIRA weigh in with you?
CI: It depends on who’s there, what committees, and who’s chairing the committees. It’s a people thing. I believe I work with the community. Some groups don’t, some groups do. Some committees, we work together, and other committees don’t.
W: Do you see RIRA as a resource?
CI: Sometimes they seem very closed, and sometimes they’re very open. It depends on who chairs the committee. It depends on how they view working with us. Some representatives are more active, some just want to state their complaints and act as a repository for complaints.
If you have a complaint, I always prefer, without publicly going out, give me a chance to fix it before you go out and tell everyone. I think we’ve been fairly responsive. The graffiti is an example. We will probably take care of it this week, but to do it, we need to turn the water on and we couldn’t do that until now. If you ask me, I will tell you. Some people just don’t really respond to that. And they’d rather just go out in public. That’s valid for them and sort of disturbing, because then they’ll take credit for whatever you’re doing which you were going to do anyway.
There’s an open relationship and there is an open-door relationship but it’s not consistent throughout RIRA, well, with certain committees it is consistent.
CI: Do you want to know what to look forward to?
CI: We’re going to have Cornell start in 2017. You’re going to have buildings 8 and 9 [of Southtown]. However, it will then become time to do all of the infrastructure work for us, for RIOC. We can’t do it now. There’s too much going on, there’s one Main Street. Local law 11 [pursuant to the law, owners of buildings greater than six stories must have their buildings’ exterior walls and appurtenances inspected once every five years and file a technical report with the Department of Buildings] will be done so you’ll have some room for the helix improvements.
Do you know about AKRF (an environmental, planning and engineering consulting firm) with Cornell? The ramp off the helix? That’s really in the works. This is something that Cornell and RIOC, I believe, will join together, and seek grants for. It would require some funding. It is, in truth, a very sexy thing, because you have the vents over the steam tunnel and since the steam tunnel is not in use anymore, it stands to reason that one can get rid of those for a more continuous loop around. This is conceptual. You work toward something and you know you can’t do it but you keep talking about it and Cornell has been really great about a lot of things.
You build a relationship on trust. We have an agreement with Cornell that has one exhibit that is the most important and that is the exhibit about truck traffic. But the numbers don’t matter, the times don’t matter, it’s how you develop it. You make times that work for both of you. Andrew Winters [Senior Director of Capital Projects at Cornell Tech], Jane Swanson [Assistant Director, Government and Community Relations at Cornell Tech], and Peter Krokondelis [Kasirer Consulting] have been an excellent team working together to make this as unintrusive (and that’s not saying it’s not intrusive) as possible. That’s also not to say there’s no room for improvement. You learn as you go.
W: What has surprised you about spending three years here?
CI: What I did have to get used to is the vast number of layers and people that are involved. Remember, although we have a lease [New York State has leased the Island from New York City] until 2068, there’s property that is controlled by DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), there is property that is controlled by HHC (New York City Health + Hospitals), the Department of Sanitation, the Fire Department, there’s property that’s controlled by Four Freedoms, Cornell, it goes on and on and on. I am shocked that the federal government doesn’t have a piece of this.
So anytime you do something, you have to have at least a thought, that just because you tell RIOC, doesn’t mean you’ve told everybody. There are a lot of stakeholders.
The facilitators thing we are going to do in Southpoint (we had the kickoff meeting), that’s going to start and there are going to be stakeholders in that. That should be very interesting. I realized we were going to need a facilitator because I went to a meeting and was like, Oh my God, if everything gets done, you won’t be able to move, it won’t be a park anymore. You literally will not be able to move with the statue, the pavilion, everybody has to get together and figure this out.
I think that’s what surprised me the most, the levels of interplay between the City and the State but, even with the State, you have two agencies, you have us and the parks, then the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy and the Department of Parks (The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation). So even the State is bifurcated. And then you have HHC. It’s that type of thing. You’re dealing with City and State agencies and you’re running the gamut over here. Then there is Hudson/Related (H/R), the agreement with the stores and the master lease to consider.
Need Vs. Want
W: If you could decide what the Island needs, if we could get anything, what would it be?
CI: I think that being a capitalist, because we are in a democratic society, it’s what you need, and what you can support. Right now those are two different things. We definitively need certain things, but somehow we can’t support them. The hardware store wasn’t paying rent. [Not paying rent] makes people sloppy. It wasn’t an attractive store. With H/R there’s been a lot of improvement. We would never have gotten the quality of the wine store (Island Wine). Wholesome Market seems to be doing well. I know this is not a popular view, but it is really hard to rent stores when you have scaffolding and netting. When you’re showing somebody something, even the most imaginative people don’t see this as an attractive thing.
First they had to fix up the ceilings and the lighting, then you had Local Law 11, then you had pipeline going down Main street. A lot of stuff is happening. It was difficult. That’s not to say that [H/R] shouldn’t put more effort into it. Actually it was at the suggestion of the Board that [H/R] decided to make the empty stores more attractive, and RIVAA helped with that. But everybody could always do more.
Every local business has the same problem; you bring in a hardware store, but there’s Home Depot. My father owned a local pharmacy and when I go into Duane Reade, I feel guilty every time. So that’s what every small community suffers. Yes, we need it because we are an Island, but there’s the Tram. I know people want things on the Island but they have to be supported.
Government should subsidize; we subsidize the Cultural Center, even though we charge, but that’s more for control than anything else. But the fact of the matter is, government is not geared like that. You have to balance. I think the master lease is a good thing. It’s a personal opinion; I didn’t have to make that decision. I didn’t have input in it but it’s there and I have to live with it.
One thing I would change is the Island House outcropping – those stairs cut off half the sidewalk and you have people in wheelchairs who can barely make it through. I don’t understand that kind of design.
W: Who deserves a shoutout?
CI: There’s a whole list. Life was very contentious with the Public Safety Committee in the beginning. We have established a relationship with them. Jack [McManus] deserves one. The RICC committee continues to be very involved. You have the Garden Club which is an excellent organization. I don’t want to leave people out. We work with so many amazing community groups like idig2learn. Vicki Feinmel is dedicated to the Good Shepherd Plaza. Then there are the unsung heroes whose names I don’t know, like the one woman I see cutting the flowers and trimming in Good Shepherd Plaza. That’s great, that makes you feel good. There are whole bunch of people who do that. The CERT team has been revitalized. But there are so many others. It has really been so wonderful. Once we got past the trust issue.
The beginning was very rocky. It was rocky for a number of reasons. You had an IG (Inspector General) report hanging over everybody’s head. But relationships have improved.
W: How long was it rocky for?
CI: A good year.
W: How long has the hiring process been going on? Why is there so much secrecy?
CI: You know, job offers come. And interviews are usually not held in public. When I interviewed with Dobbs Ferry, a couple of months ago, I met with a board. There’s a lot that goes on, should I do it, should I not? I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was a hard decision for me.
W: There is a public perception that Susan Rosenthal was brought in as a successor. Does that have any merit?
CI: We advertised for CFO (Chief Financial Officer). We advertised for VP of Operations. I took the operations onto myself. It came a time when it’s just too much and I couldn’t handle it all. Even if I were to stay, I need a VP of Operations. We need a CFO and I’ve been doing that too. The secrecy, if you’re not looking for a CFO job, you’re not going to see the ad. But we didn’t do it in secret. If anyone on the Island wanted a CFO job they would have seen our ad.
W: Can you speak to the perception that political appointees are put here primarily to enhance their retirement status. Will RIOC be encumbered by a lot of retirement income?
CI: Larry Schwartz [formerly Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief aide] was Deputy County Executive when I was [Westchester] County Attorney. We worked very well together. Local government has different ways of looking at it, different wants; county is ten thousand feet up for example, and local is boots on the ground. So he (Schwartz) used me as a liaison with local communities and would ask what makes sense and I would know because that’s my origin. [At the time] I was still friendly with a lot of people who do that. When he came here, there were a lot of problems and he lured me in with Cornell (I love negotiations) and that’s how I was recruited. I do have a resume for this. The only thing I have not done that I had to look at on the Island was the Tram. However I did represent a bus company in my private practice.
I am not retiring so you have no burden. Dobbs Ferry encumbers it. Actually the State encumbers it. When I’m here you pay. When I retire, the State takes over. But the fact is, I am not retiring and this hasn’t done too much for my salary. I was recruited because I have local government experience. In truth, why would I ask for a favor that is an hour and half from my home?
The RIOC Board
W: What about the RIOC Board? The perception was that there would be elections every four years. The Board members terms are all expired.
CI: I can only speak legally that there are gubernatorial appointments and it is up to the governor whether or not he wants to honor RIRA’s recommendations.
I know that this is not the popular point of view but those are not elections. Legally, a number of Board members have to be residents. There are five votes. My feeling is that regardless of what resident is put on, you still have to go to the Farmer’s Market and have to put a bag over your head because you get so many complaints. And that’s what’s required. I know there’s a move to have more, but you don’t need more. You have a majority.
Secondly, [RIOC] is a public benefit corporation; it isn’t local government. It is an aberration and it has to be treated a little differently. I think with having somebody here who is involved, and I think RIOC is very involved in the community, you’re servicing the residents as a local government.
Additionally, I believe that Roosevelt Island gets the best of both worlds. You get the responsiveness of somebody here that you can complain to and ask for stuff and get something immediately, more so than most places. Then you have the City with your representatives like Ben Kallos, and he’s very responsive; you have Assemblymember Seawright on the State level. So you have a lot of people to go to as opposed to right across the way in Queens where you go to one and if they ignore you, then that’s it.
W: Do you get sufficient community input from the resident Board members you have?
CI: It offends me when people say that they just want to hang on to their jobs. Zero is zero. You have to recognize that zero salary is not really attractive. Everybody comes to the table with their own ideas so that’s why you have that type of government. They discuss it and whatever has the most votes wins. Just because you favor this over that, doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It’s all volunteer. There’s no benefit to them to hold back. It is a State Public Benefit Corporation. There’s a structure that is State, like with the procurement of the public purpose funds. They are fighting for the community but it is what it is, you can’t change it because you think differently. It’s under the laws and the law was changed for the public-purpose benefit and we did what we had to do.