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Seawright and RIOC: Now Pulling A Southpoint Fast One?


Did state assembly member Rebecca Seawright team up with RIOC acting president Shelton Haynes, pulling a Southpoint fast one? Did they work at taking the pressure off Team Cuomo?

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

Did Seawright Really Persuade RIOC To Back Off On Southpoint?

It was almost too good to be true as we reported on September 29th. Days before, RIOC hammered an aggressive assault on the Wildlife Freedom Foundation, a small local nonprofit.

WFF could not in good conscience agree to the state agency’s unorthodox demands, including rent for the first time after fifteen years. And it looked to us like Sickening Animal Cruelty from Andrew Cuomo’s RIOC.

RIOC Seawright Southpoint Letter
A letter from Haynes to Seawright, without any copies, was badly deficient but somehow found its way to the New York Post.

Next working day, Haynes pens a letter to Seawright, but…

But Haynes never cc-ed anyone, a strange omission, especially in light of the fact that the Post quoted verbatim from it in a same day article.

“RIOC Acting President and CEO Shelton Haynes was purring a more friendly tune on Monday, a source familiar with the controversy said…”

No name, but the source had to be either Seawright or Haynes or a tool assigned to making it all look nice. Was it, though?

Let’s be clear about the sequence.

  • Sometime Monday, following our article, Seawright and Haynes talk, presumably by phone.
  • Haynes composes this letter, littered with ambiguity and misdirection, to Seawright.
  • The Post has a copy soon enough to publish its story before midnight.
  • Nobody else gets a copy, including WFF, its attorneys or local media

Sounds like plan…

A muddled, misshapen, misleading letter… Is it masterful Seawright RIOC Southpoint deception?

Really, Haynes wasn’t “purring a more friendly tune” at all. He was trimming the hedges, making the state’s grim intentions look neater.

“The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) is in the process of reevaluating the terms and conditions of the payment structure for the Wildlife Freedom Foundation (WFF); as well as the timing by which payments will begin.”

What the hell does that even mean?

Nothing really and both Seawright and RIOC fail to note that rent is far from the only issue in the dispute engineered by chief counsel Gretchen Robinson.

(I’m using “RIOC” interchangeably with “Haynes” because he is certainly not acting alone or independently.)

“RIOC will continue to work with WFF in the effort to reach an agreement as it pertains to the operation and use of RIOC state-owned land,” is pure lawyerly lard.

Haynes is not a lawyer.

The letter doesn’t really change anything, and that’s deception, all by itself.

But you know what’s worse? Today, three days after this letter went to Seawright and the Post, neither WFF or its attorneys have heard a word about it from RIOC.

Yes, It’s Bogus But What’s the Seawright RIOC Thing All About?

For fifteen years, RIOC enjoyed cordial relations with WFF and its predecessor Island Cats. It was mutually beneficial as WFF cared for the Island’s stray and injured animal population without charge.

In fact, the friendship was so good over several administrations that RIOC provided additional operating funds through public purpose grants, every year.

In recent years, the state agency generously built two new sanctuaries. Shelton Haynes, before moving up to acting president, volunteered to act as WFF’s protective godfather at RIOC.

Then, Boom! Feathers ruffled, RIOC turned bully…

Seawright and RIOC tangled in Southpoint when the assembly member signed on in support of the Save Our Shorelines protest. WFF executive director Rossana Ceruzzi lead the protest, and Seawright jumped ship soon after hearing from RIOC.

Save Our Shorelines Protest March, July 11th, 2020
Seawright and RIOC panicked after the Save Our Shorelines protest marched through Southpoint.

But the escalation and retaliation were just beginning.

In September, after RIOC built a new and greatly improved Southpoint sanctuary and encouraged WFF to move in, revenge displaced generosity.

RIOC chief counsel Gretchen Robinson suddenly demanded that WFF sign an agreement requiring monthly rent. None of the terms, several of which WFF’s pro bono attorneys thought so unorthodox they were unacceptable, could be negotiated.

Robinson said a state regulation forced the issue, but she has not been able to cite one nor explain why it didn’t exist until after the SOS protest.

WFF balked, and Robinson pounced, telling the animal rescue organization, You’re out in 30 days, including the animals. That would be on October 24th, on the cusp of winter.

In spite of the Haynes letter above, Robinson has not budged off that position.

If a cynic might say the letter was all for show, especially with Seawright in a difficult reelection battle, then I’m a cynic.

Absolutely nothing changed.

The Fallout

With RIOC’s Elbow Ass Distinction Disorder (EADD) on full display, the vengeful move affects a number of community organizations that, like WFF, use RIOC properties for their activities.

  • The Roosevelt Island Garden Club, which charges its members to use space roughly 20 times larger than the sanctuary’s, does not pay a nickel. In fairness, their rent should be up to $10K per month and begin, like WFF’s, immediately.
  • The result of a peculiar no-bid contract handled by former chief counsel Jaci Flug allows the PS/IS 217 PTA to collect rental fees for the weekly Farmer’s Market. No part of that money goes to RIOC. The arrangement is grossly unfair to other nonprofits but even more so now that RIOC’s changed direction.
  • The Living Library occupies garden space adjacent to the new NYPL and does not pay rent. Theirs ought to be comparable to WFF’s $400 per month.
  • iDig2Learn stages events in parks on the Island but does not pay any rental fees.
  • Until last week, BIKE NYC occupied public RIOC space under the helix for years, rent free.
  • Citi Bike is not paying rent for three docking stations on public land.
  • The RIRA Common Council has used community space for meetings for years, rent free.

Oddly enough, WFF is the single one of this group offering valued services to RIOC without charge.

And with this single apparent act of revenge RIOC has opened the door to harming perhaps ending multiple local community groups.

No Seawright RIOC Southpoint gambit, using the Post for PR leverage can reverse all this damage.

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