Wednesday, December 29th, members and staff popped up on Zoom for the last 2020 RIOC board meeting. Encouraging signs of openness flashed, but there was enough of the old bad RIOC to keep it dim.
by David Stone
The last 2020 board meeting’s sudden agenda…
Without nearly enough advance notice giving the public a chance of responding, key agenda items abruptly appeared on RIOC‘s website. Plans for unpopular moves joined approval of next year’s budget, originally the key issue, on the schedule.
- Authorization to Approve Amendment of Lease with Riverwalk 8 Housing Development Fund Corporation and Riverwalk 8, LLC for Southtown Building #8 Board Action Required)
- Authorization to Place the Bike Ramp within the Helix Ramp (Board Action
Happily, RIOC pulled the second item apparently because of resident objections, but it still generated an encouraging discussion.
Why didn’t anyone tell Michael Shinozaki to shut TF up…? Maybe in nicer words…
Before each board meeting, RIOC allows time for public comment. In days pre-pandemic, anyone with something to say reserved a spot before the mic as the board listened, usually quietly and without comment.
But in the days of ZOOM necessitated by COVID-19, written comments posted on RIOC’s website are read aloud by chief legal counsel Gretchen Robinson.
Robinson cleanly handled a comment from longtime Island activist Judith Berdy, although it was written in frustration and high emotion.
“YOU ARE HOISTING FRAUD ON THE ISLAND AGAIN,” it began. Yes, in all caps which suggests shouting, internet-wise.
Berdy unloaded on several points. Among them, the controversial helix bike ramp, letting Hudson-Related off the hook for building restrooms at Firefighter’s Field and a vacuum of leadership in the Public Safety Dept.
While acting president/CEO Shelton “I’m into bridge-building” Haynes effectively thumbed his nose at “this person,” dismissing concerns expressed by the community’s best known public voice, that wasn’t enough for Shinozaki.
In a public forum, Haynes had little choice other than defending his staff. Sure, he handled it awkwardly, but next to Shinozaki, he was eloquent.
Flavoring the last 2020 RIOC board meeting, he pointed out that the state agency was under no legal obligation for listening to public comments. Then, he iced it. It was a “courtesy,” he said.
No one could effectively have emphasized RIOC’s indifference to engagement with the community. Virtually the only time any resident gets to address the board was passed off as a patroon-like favor.
Last 2020 RIOC board meeting’s dubious concession to Hudson-Related…
The amendment to the Building 8 lease contained two concessions. CFO John O’Reilly explained the wisdom of one, but the second was, at best, a clinker.
First, Hudson-Related was at or near noncompliance with both provisions being altered. RIOC essentially rescued them without penalty.
When the builder signed the deal for Building 8, they promised public restrooms for Firefighter’s Field and new lighting. Both were due now but neither started.
O’Reilly rationalized letting Hudson-Related off the hot seat for restrooms because the deal required RIOC covering costs in excess of $1 million. The deluxe toilets specced out by the builder came in with a $1.7 million price tag.
The $700,000 excess, he said, was too much for RIOC’s currently challenged budget. In the end, it wasn’t much of a concession because Hudson-Related agreed to write a check for $1 million. O’Reilly argued that it could be better used on “health and safety projects.”
This was unsatisfactory for a couple of reasons. First, the “health and safety projects” are unidentified. So, who knows what RIOC will do with the money? Nobody asked. And it also leaves biologically challenged sports fans locked out in their time of need.
Of greater concern….
Hudson-Related also failed with lighting they promised for the same sports field. But no problem because, Robinson explained, when Building 9 construction begins nearby, damage to the lighting, if built, was possible. “And we (RIOC) would be responsible.
Yeah, me too.
But no one on the board questioned this spurious argument. Why would RIOC be responsible if the builder dinged the lights it installed?
Honest to God, nobody asked.
And then, confirming the “epidemic of bad decisions” Berdy noted for the last 2020 RIOC board meeting, they gave Hudson-Related up to five years of delay. Without penalty, the builder gets as long as 2026 for installing lighting due right now but never started.
And then, the bike ramp…
Although RIOC pulled approval of the helix bike ramp from the agenda at the last minute, it was out there. No hiding.
Already during the public session, three out of four commenters spoke virtually about it. After Berdy condemned it as “a joke,” Frank Farance and Mickey Rindler offered conditional support. But Rick O’Conor nailed it.
Why, he wondered, if Islanders supported it, was it up for a vote?
Many Islanders don’t support it, as board member David Kraut noted. They don’t see any need for it.
Another board member, David Kappell, who’s shown serious interest in upgrading the entire Motorgate plaza, objected to a “piecemeal” approach. He argued for an holistic design.
But it was clear that public complaints about spending millions on a bike ramp that benefits a tiny percentage of residents pushed approval off the agenda.
There are additional worries about risks inherent in inviting more riders onto unmanaged promenades. Public safety, in the eyes of many, is not up to the task of controlling bicycle riders.
Haynes’s follow up comments about consulting with “stakeholders” was not promising.
After all, just a half-hour before, he dismissed the concerns of Judith Berdy, an important stakeholder. Giving rise to concerns that by “stakeholders” he means “those who agree with me,” he went on to cite Community Board 8, elected officials, RIDA, RISA and the Common Council as “stakeholders.”
Making matters worse, he mentioned a town hall allegedly on “bike safety” in October and an ineptly designed bike survey that few Islanders know anything about.
The “town hall,” however lightly attended, was a thinly veiled Democratic Party campaign event held just before election day. Anyone clicking into Zoom got to hear 24 minutes of political posturing before a half-hour rolled on with PSD chief Kevin Brown making false claims about progress and a couple of nonprofits touting their skillsets.
Will more of the same get us better results?
Concluding the last 2020 RIOC board meeting: The President’s Report
For the last RIOC board meeting of 2020, Haynes rushed through some progress reports:
- The secretive coronavirus testing site RIOC’s building in the old library location is projected for completion in January. That’s unlikely. There’s more to this than putting up some walls, but I’d love to be wrong. We need this, and it’s unfortunate that RIOC’s shared so little information about it.
- The long-awaited Hope Memorial is finally finished, but an official opening date awaits. Social distancing requirements are an obstacle. Haynes gets credit for rescuing the memorial which sat idle until he put some juice behind it over the summer.
- After months of rancor, the dispute with Wildlife Freedom Foundation is over. (WFF founder Rossana Ceruzzi confirmed her satisfaction with a new contract.) Haynes has not explained RIOC’s earlier aggression against WFF, although evidence suggests retaliation against the tiny nonprofit for protesting the destruction of Southpoint Park.
Coming clean on motives for staff misconduct remains out of RIOC’s scope of accountability.