The Roosevelt Island Common Council’s public purpose fund recommendations for 2021 are riddled with poor judgment. So much so, anyone could have drawn straws at random and done better.
Opinion by David Stone
Yesterday, the Common Council coughed up its recommendations for public purpose fund grants for 2021. RIOC formally awards the grants based on these decisions, which makes their poor judgment painful in real time.
Locally based nonprofits rely on the grants, some for survival, some for enrichment. But all must count on the Council exercising good sense and fair play. They fail at both.
Poor judgment starts at the top, page one…
Applicants must be nonprofit organizations operating on Roosevelt Island…RIOC Eligibility Guidelines
How far can you stretch “operating on Roosevelt Island?” In the Common Council’s mind, at least as far as Brazil, but they top that. The first listed award goes to something they call, “New York Foundation for the Arts- Piazzolla-100,” a group so special, it doesn’t even exist.
Yes, the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) is real. Its sponsors include American Express, Consolidated Edison and Deutsche Bank. And there a literally dozens of foundations and wealthy individuals chipping in.
How poor would your judgment have to be to give away scarce resources to a group so well funded it grants awards of its own?
Piazzolla-100? There is no such organization, but it relates to Suarez Paz’s “arts project that showcases a groundbreaking Nuevo Tango style.” Nowhere does its website suggest nonprofit status nor does it ask for donations.
It’s a touring arts group that cobbled together an unexplained connection with NYFA.
Poor judgment? How does a touring tango company benefit a broad section of our community? Enough, the Common Council thinks, for an $11,000 grant.
According to RIOC, “Not-for-proﬁt community organizations are welcome to apply,” Piazzolla-100 is neither not-for-profit nor a community organization.
But the Common Council gives them more than the Carter Burden Network or Island Kids, an exercise in poor judgment stretching across generations.
Without evidence, the Council giddily exclaims, “Many residents are awaiting ‘Argentine Tango’ lessons.”
Really? Piazzolla-100’s website does not feature any kind of community outreach or teaching.
And you can only hope the poor judgment stops there, but it doesn’t.
Take a short memory, mix in poor judgment and local favoritism, and what do you get?
An insulting, generous award to a group that nearly destroyed the Senior Center, never owned up to it or returned a dime of tens of thousands ripped off from needy residents. If that ain’t poor judgment, what is?
And it comes with another slap in face for the Carter Burden Network (CBN), the group that rescued the Senior Center from the ravages of the Roosevelt Island Senior Association (RISA). The corrupt collect $16,000, and the group who cleaned up their mess? They get $10,000. Both requested nearly identical grants.
Let’s look at the history…
In 2016, after managing the Roosevelt Island Senior Center at 546 Main Street for over a decade, RISA was kicked out by the City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA). An anonymous tipster blew them in for egregious thefts of funds, mostly handled by RISA’s project manager.
Without getting into the details here, in short, the Department of Investigations, at the urging of city council member Ben Kallos, investigated, finding so much wrongdoing that DFTA terminated RISA’s contract.
CBN was, then, recruited on an emergency basis, sending in one of its top managers, Lisa Fernandez, and saved the Senior Center. DFTA, costing the city additional thousands on top of the thefts during RISA’s tenure, worked hand-in-hand with CBN for over a month, getting things rolling.
Since CBN’s arrival, the Senior Center thrived, adding new programs and vastly expanding participation.
One of the most galling aspects of RISA’s conduct, before and after the thefts, was a profound refusal of taking responsibility. That poor judgment got sauced with an overt disinformation campaign.
In news reports at the time, RISA board members, one now serving as executive director, denied being terminated. Their contract, they claimed, had simply not been renewed. But DFTA knew the truth, and they recruited CBN in an emergency after clipping RISA for cause.
The cause? As RISA knew, their project manager ripped off funds DFTA awarded for operating the Senior Center in the tens of thousands. At least. Maybe more, according to investigators.
But that’s not the story they told. In a series of print articles and editorials, RISA board members blamed “accounting errors,” and minor ones at that.
Those accounting errors led to a multi-felony indictment over crimes by RISA’s top staff and a plea bargain before trial. None of the stolen funds were ever returned to the Senior Center nor did RISA offer any other restitution. Quite the opposite.
In one astounding printed piece, RISA fingered a culprit for their fate: the whistleblowers who exposed the corruption.
RISA never once accepted an ounce of responsibility, and in fact, they never apologized to the community. And why should they? Gullible reporting granted them a scapegoat: the Carter Burden Network, outsiders who crept in and took a contract away from them.
Poor judgment seasoned with cruelty…
In the years that followed, while occupying a small office inside the Senior Center, RISA persistently undermined CBN’s work at restoring and invigorating the Senior Center. As a nonprofit relying on public funding, CBN had a standing policy forbidding criticism of other organizations.
Plenty of us witnessed the antics, but in respect for CBN, we kept our mouths shut. As a reporter, I was repeatedly approached by seniors asking for help fighting off RISA’s aggressions. And in one stunning occasion, a group of community leaders from the senior and disabled community’s asked me to expose the bad behavior.
Now, it’s five years later, with no accountability, apology nor contrition, “RISA is back,” declares the Common Council.
We can only hope not.
Poor judgment and the Common Council…
The Common Council is a leadership group formed out of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association. Their mission is representing community values and preferences. But it’s been clear for years that it does not.
Peppered with personal missions, prejudices and favoritism, it’s been a shell, a raw debating club unable to gather a quorum for most meetings. But we hoped that new leadership now in place would bring a refresh and more community awareness.
In that, we’re disappointed. Poor judgment, like that cited above, reflects a same old, same old resistance to change. And keep in mind, we listed only the worst of it. The entire exercise was riddled with failures in common sense.
Our last hope? RIOC will rise out of its recent slumber and fix the mess, but I wouldn’t bank on it.