Democracy Dead on RI in Long Wait for a Voice in Governance

Written by Dana Agmon. Posted in Volume 37, Issue 1 - September 10, 2016

It’s no secret that the lack of democratic process at the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) has been at the forefront of concern for many long-time Island residents, and a matter of chronic reconsideration for the Roosevelt Island Resident Association (RIRA).

Six months after former President and CEO of RIOC Charlene Indelicato left office, there is no evidence that any official search to fill the position has been initiated. Susan Rosenthal is interim President, and an effective CEO at that, but she still holds her original title and responsibilities as Vice President and General Counsel. There are no visible indications that the RIOC Board of Directors is even considering steps to generate an orderly transition to new management at 591 Main Street.

For two decades, RIRA committees and independent panels of Islanders labored to bring fair representation to the Island’s residents. There was progress under Governors Pataki, Spitzer, and Paterson, but backward steps under Andrew Cuomo, whose only appointment to the RIOC Board was a non-resident and, worse, in charge of one of RIOC’s main tenants, The Child School and Legacy High School. While members of the RIOC Board urged Salvatore Ferrera to resign, the State administration merely winked at a serious conflict of interest.

Stagnation, Until Dismissed

There are seven seats on the RIOC Board, or nine if you include ex officio members who serve, by law, as State officials. The Ferrera seat has been vacant since 2013, when he resigned in a minor scandal over mismanagement of the school he headed.

The appointments of every other (public) member of the Board have expired. Their terms have thus extended beyond the boundaries of democracy, because they’re subject to instant dismissal should they displease the governor or whatever underling he has given responsibility for RIOC.

It could be argued that this Damocles status renders them powerless, unable to advocate forcefully – perhaps even quietly – for the community.

The Island’s newest residents may be unfamiliar with a 2012-14 kickback scandal that landed former Vice President of Operations Fernando Martinez in jail. But that’s only the most recent item in a list that goes back many years.

In 1996, RIOC President Jerome Blue tried to put a hotel on land now occupied by Four Freedoms Park. He ended State subsidies for the Island, and tried to terminate or curtail Tram service. He was abruptly removed in 1999 by Governor Pataki.

In 2003 RIOC President Robert Ryan was fired for improper pay and bonuses in connection with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

In 2005 Assemblyman Richard Brodsky called RIOC “un-American” after a probe into Island governance.

In 2010 President Steve Shane was fired by the Board for what many believe was his opposition to over-eager privatization of the Island’s residential buildings.

Shane’s successor, Leslie Torres, was confirmed despite a resolution calling for a more structured search process. She left suddenly over some credit card irregularities.

And in 2011, by appointing Ferrera, Governor Cuomo removed an Island-nominated Board member, Jonathan Kalkin, whose term had expired. It was only the audit failure at The Child School that removed Ferrera.

Once Upon a Time, Islanders Voted

During the short period when Islanders were allowed to nominate residents to serve on the RIOC Board, there was a brief outbreak of democracy. While general elections, including midterms, turn out 39% to 57% nationally, those RIOC Board elections had a turnout of about 85%.

Cuomo

RIRA representatives have reached out, researched, met, written letters, and advocated for a democratically elected RIOC board under every Governor. The attempts under Pataki, Spitzer, and Paterson found support, an open door and positive wins for the community, while all attempts to communicate and make progress have been ignored by Governor Cuomo. Instead, Cuomo sent his aide, Larry Schwartz, to make empty promises of consideration.

It’s not hard to understand why residents have been distrustful and dissatisfied with Island governance.

In her last interview with The WIRE in March 2016, former RIOC President Charlene Indelicato said she “can only speak legally” about RIOC Board appointments, but legally speaking all confirmations had expired before Indelicato left office, and attempts through legislation to legitimatize the RIOC Board as a democratically appointed medium of governance failed.

Democracy is dead in the waters of the East River.

Tags: RIRA RIOC Representation & Governance Dana Agmon

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