RIOC’s July 2020, board meeting featured an odd mix of steadiness under pressure, stressed by obvious fissures with the community.
By David Stone
An attempted restart dragged with unanswered questions, and not just about the ambushing of Susan Rosenthal. Aggressive questioning from exasperated residents on other issues got a cold shoulder, too.
Approving a final financial report for the year ending March 31st was the main business, and that went well. But fraying relations prevailed elsewhere.
RIOC’s Unbalanced, July 2020, Board Meeting
Overseen by CFO John O’Reilly, the state agency’s final report for the last fiscal year easily met approval from the board. That included high ratings for purchasing and general accounting practices. But, O’Reilly noted, there’s trouble ahead.
Rocked by coronavirus shutdown issues, RIOC’s current budget is under stress.
First, a large drop in Tram ridership reduced income since March, and significant improvement is unlikely this year. A second, less visible stressor is a drop in investment income. Interest rates plummeted, costing RIOC a projected $1 million-plus shortfall.
Necessary adjustments are as yet unsettled but in the works.
Self-Congratulations Leave Out the Public
Throughout the July 2020, board meeting, mutual salutes of praise echoed within the corporate domain. Comity among staff was evident.
No problem there. A skilled, successful staff admiring each other is good and rare, but it can also block other views.
A disjunct between RIOC and the community it’s assigned to serve appeared right away.
In comments read by lead counsel Gretchen Reynolds, local leaders took the agency to task on several issues. That was jarring and unusual enough, but what came next was more telling.
One by one, the concerns of Matthew Katz, Rick O’Conor, Judith Berdy, Raye Schwartz and Sherrie Helstien reached the board. And the board answered mainly with stony silence.
If they listened at all or cared about the content, it wasn’t evident.
Helstien, a longtime activist, assailed RIOC over plans to remake Southpoint Park, quoting from a petition signed by nearly 3,000. The plans defy community wishes and values, uprooting hundreds of trees and native plants.
It’s the only complaint that earned a board response. Michael Shinozaki protested, saying he knew nothing about bulldozing 325 trees, as claimed, and that only a single path was being relocated. That’s part of restoring damaged shorelines.
But the plans go much further, envisioning a tiny repeat of Brooklyn Bridge Park on Roosevelt Island.
In Shelton Haynes “acting president’s report,” later on, he said the project would go forward in July. Neither Haynes nor the board otherwise answered residents’ concerns.
Bicycles, Blackwell House and Who Ambushed Susan Rosenthal
The comments portion comes before the official board meeting and does not become part of it. Nor is it included in the minutes. But it’s often residents only chance to sound off, and it’s typically ignored.
If RIOC hopes to reengage with the community, as pledged, that should change, but there was no evidence that it would. After a series of questions and protests, RIOC’s July 2020, board meeting went on, still deaf to residents.
Typical was the reaction to historian Judith Berdy’s statement about Blackwell House, a national historic site, being taken over by RIOC staff, displacing community groups: The board acted as though deafness joined COVID-19 as a local curse.
Three residents raised bicycle issues. Matthew Katz asked that RIOC reconsider the poor placement of Citi Bike docking stations under the Roosevelt Island Bridge helix. It blocks access to the farmers market.
Raye Schwartz and Joanne Eichel were more pointed. Eichel asked if RIOC had been consulted about the proposed Queens Ribbon bicycle/pedestrian bridge. The board and staff answered her with the standard stony silence.
And Schwartz’s complaint, echoing reporting here, about bad bicycle behavior and Public Safety Dept. indifference, also met silence. Board and staff, it seemed, had no issue with bikes running stop signs, scattering pedestrians in crosswalks and using sidewalks like highways.
PSD chief Kevin Brown was on the call as was assistant chief Anthony Amorosa. Neither spoke.
And What Happened To Susan Rosenthal?
The most desultory part of the meeting brought HCR director RuthAnne Visnauskas up front, whisking away the rude and crude firing of Rosenthal. HCR oversees RIOC as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s voice in running the place. And Visnauskas is a political animal who has never built relations here.
She praised the board for nodding sheepishly at Cuomo’s hatchet work, then soon drifted out of the meeting. To the board’s credit, none seemed much impressed by her “leadership.”
And it was cold.
Neither Visnauskas nor anyone on RIOC’s board or staff offered a word of thanks or best wishes to the president with whom they’d worked for five years. In the callousness of Albany politics brought to Roosevelt Island, Rosenthal was simply disappeared.
RIOC’s July 2020, Board Meeting and Shelton Haynes
In his first public actions, acting president Haynes was modest as well as optimistic.
Residents who’ve worked with the former vice president know him as calm, friendly and open, all traits he brought to the table.
Without criticism of past events, Haynes promised transparency, a quality long lacking at RIOC, and cooperation. He announced plans for a town hall, but he also heaped praise on his own staff without any for the community.
While guiding Roosevelt Island through the trials of COVID-19, RIOC’s done well, but lingering disputes show no signs of resolution. Or, frankly, interest.
There was no mention, for example, of daily volunteer efforts to feed needy residents fronted by the Disabled Association and the Carter Burden Network. Nor was there the faintest nod to struggling local businesses serving the community with little aid from their landlord. That is, RIOC, which shows little appreciation for their losses.
If Haynes hopes to open channels with residents, a listening route ought to be his first choice. And that needs a supplement from a board impervious to local grievances.
The negatives, from detached board to isolated staff, upsetting for years, need more attention, or the fate of the Shelton Haynes era will not differ greatly from that of Susan Rosenthal’s mixed tenure.
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