During the RIRA election campaign of 2014, The WIRE interviewed seven former RIRA presidents: John Sheehan (1980-81), Francoise Richards (1987-89), Patrick Stewart (2000-02), David Kraut (1992-94), Nellie Negrin Finnegan (1982-1984), Matthew Katz (2002-04, 2006-12), and Steve Marcus (2004-06).
They served at different points throughout RIRA’s history and faced different challenges. The objective was to discover what had motivated them to take on the challenges of a job that can often seem unappreciated – there’s no pay, the hours are long, and the complaints they hear are endless.
The following are excerpts from those interviews. (To read the full transcripts, go to mainstreetwire.com.)
On Being a Council Member
Sheehan: When I started, I was young. I was idealistic. I had some skills and I thought I could make a difference. I made less of a difference than I hoped. Nevertheless, I spent the time and effort to do it and so have many others. You need people who are willing to do the work, and you need people who have skills to put forth their best [for RIRA].
Katz: Each Common Council – and I’ve been at this since 1997 – is dramatically different from the previous one. What is a given is that, in an organization of 30-35 people, there will always be 6-8 people who get everything done. It’s the way these things work.
Richards: One thing that always struck me, when I was really active, was that the people who were really active then were the working women with kids at home. The men with jobs and kids, they were always too busy. But the women with jobs and kids at home were always the most active.
On RIRA’s Past
Stewart: RIRA in those days was a different place. It was a lot better. It was a different community to begin with. People were more community-oriented in those days than they are now. There are fewer people who raise hell [on RIRA] than there used to be. Very few people anymore will speak up. A lot of us are damned tired of it, because it ain’t going to change. I like RIRA. I liked the job as President. I thought I could win some influence beyond where the good people were. I liked the job on RIRA because I had something to do. I got press, which I liked because it made me think I might get listened to.
Finnegan: Back in the day, when I was RIRA president, we thought very carefully about who would be the next RIRA president. And we vetted them. And we put them on certain committees. We really felt it was important to think about succession planning and then introduce [the prospective president] to our local political leaders so that [the local politicians] knew who was up-and-coming and who truly represented the Roosevelt Island perspective.
On Dealings with RIOC
Stewart: My main job was getting rid of [then RIOC President Dr. Jerome] Blue. That was my agenda. And we may have had a hand in getting rid of him.
Marcus: I was the lead guy to be dealing with [RIOC President Herb] Berman. And we had a couple of cordial meetings, and then, things sort of fell apart. He didn’t want to meet anymore; he didn’t follow up on doing or saying stuff that he had promised. In the end, I didn’t have much of a dialogue with him so I used to just blast him in the paper, in my column.
Kraut: RIOC should just stay the hell away from RIRA. RIRA should decide what they want, hammer things out in and among themselves, and then go to their friendly local RIOC Board member and say, Look, here is what we’ve decided we need very much. Then, we work together. A RIOC Board member should not be influencing the RIRA decision process in any way whatsoever. The purpose of RIRA, when I was on RIRA, was to talk to the power and that was RIOC and the City and the State.
In all my years on the RIOC Board, I have never, not ever, not at any time, 100%, allowed RIOC to interfere in RIRA matters. I’ve never said a word against RIRA myself, ever; and I’ve always insisted that RIRA be heard, even when RIRA was shouting instead of talking, which is very often the case.
Katz: It is to be of a single mind as to what to do, so the RIOC Board of Directors is not the tail wagging the dog, but the dog that determines policy for RIOC. You go to every RIOC committee meeting that’s open to the public, as well as every Board meeting that’s open to the public. You speak at every RIOC Board meeting, you have meetings with the President/CEO and the Chief Operations Manager on a regular basis, and you establish relationships with these people. It pays dividends. That’s how you do it.
Stewart: The State thinks, Let’s keep RIOC and RIRA apart. When you’re on the RIOC Board, 99-100% of the people are friends of Albany. The RIOC Board, for the most part, is 100% politics. That was horrendous. Everybody is watching their back. How you got on [the RIOC Board] was by government appointment. I don’t know the reason I got put on the RIOC Board, but I think it was because I was creating so much trouble that the politicians thought, Let’s get him off the street. If we make him a member of the Board, maybe he’ll end up thinking like us. Well, I didn’t. It was hard on my stomach, I must say. You know who’s the lackey and who’s not. It’s hard on your gut to figure out who’s working together.
On Lessons Learned
Richards: When Manhattan Park was planned, that was when I realized pretty quickly that you can’t do everything. If I am going to accomplish one thing or two things, that’s what I’m going to do.
Katz: I know how to organize things. That’s what I did for a living for a very long time, and there’s a certain amount of OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] in my nature, which can be very useful when used the right way. That’s where scheduling comes in. The term is two years – 20 meetings. Your window of opportunity is very short. That time goes by very fast. Get committee chairs voted in at the first meeting. By December, everyone should know what they’re doing.
Marcus: Enjoy the people you work with, and respect them. Keep the community in mind, which I think they do. You know, I always tried to run the meetings with some humor, because I found them interesting, even though they were sometimes a little long. But, you know, I tried to keep the humor and good spirits because everybody is doing this because they want to. This is their release. Nobody is holding a gun to anybody’s head to show up at these meetings. You’re doing it because you want to do some good and you want to enjoy yourself to boot.
On the Importance of RIRA
Kraut: There has to be a RIRA. There has to be a general representative body speaking for the people. RIRA has the power of the vote because they have elections every two years in which 1,200 or 1,500 people participate. RIRA has the power to represent the people. Whether it’s acknowledged by law or not has nothing to do with it. You get 1,200 voters every two years, you are allowed to say you represent the people. RIRA has no jobs; RIOC has the jobs on this rock. But to give RIRA a little say-so over the public purse is empowering to RIRA, and it means they have an influence over a whole lot of Island activities. Anyone who applies for Public Purpose Funds has to go through RIRA and make their case. It’s an important power. It’s a very small part of the public purse but it’s something.
Marcus: This is your community. If you have feelings about it, if you have definite opinions and you see ways to improve it, then working for an organization like RIRA is a worthy thing to do. It makes sense. Sure, there are other organizations you can work for. But RIRA is the one organization that encompasses the whole Island and is accepted as the mouthpiece for the residents. It represents us all; there are elections. RIRA can be very effective in many ways.
On the Future
Marcus: The thing I like most about Roosevelt Island is that it’s not Chelsea. It’s not all paved over. When I raised my two kids here, you’d send them out of the building, they’d say I’m going to play ball or I am going to soccer practice, and I’d say, Okay, see you later. You didn’t have to worry about them. I very much hope that some open spaces still remain here in the future, and kids can still walk outside. I think this is statistically the safest place in New York. For my money, this is the best place in New York, and Rivercross is the best building in New York.
Sheehan: I hope Roosevelt Island will remain a place that you can bring your young family to and grow up the way we did. Affordable doesn’t only mean the poorest of the poor. It’s that great middle – young people who are having children, who have jobs that don’t pay them as much as jobs used to pay. Those are the tough years. You don’t have money but you have a lot of things you have to do. I remember what those years were like. They were years that you were not considered upper-middle-class or middle-class. We were scraping by just like a lot of other people were scraping by. I hope that they continue to at least have Roosevelt Island be a place where there are a substantial number of units that are affordable in the broader sense of what affordable is.
Katz: The bottom line is, Who decides? The community? Or a State agency? RIRA is only as good as the people who step up to the plate. The potential is there to change the quality of life on Roosevelt Island. What direction it will go in is up to us. It’s our Island. It doesn’t belong to RIOC. It doesn’t belong to the governor. It doesn’t belong to Cornell. It’s us. We either make the effort or we don’t.