Last week, Kathy Hochul succeeded Andrew Cuomo as New York’s governor. It’s hard imagining any community with more at stake than Roosevelt Island.
By David Stone
For Roosevelt Islanders, it’s personal. As things works here — or fail to, we are at the whim of the governor. The governor is the boss, top of the letterhead, where the buck stops, whether he or she likes it or not.
We’ve had good and responsive, but we’ve also had bad. Andrew Cuomo was arguably the worst, his minion micromanaging Roosevelt Island fro 150 miles up the river. Not always, but recently, it was with little regard for the community or for the skillsets forces on residents.
The outgoing governor was bad, turning the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation into a patronage mill (at best) with little regard for the abilities of those he appointed. This resulted in hunkered down executives with scant outreach and media censorship in every direction.
“A new era of transparency will be one of the hallmarks of my administration. To me, it’s very simple. We will focus on open, ethical governing that New Yorkers will trust.”New York State Governor Kathy Hochul
If Hochul comes anywhere near that, it’ll be a complete reversal for Roosevelt Island.
Cuomo turned the tide… backwards
Created as a model urban community, under Cuomo, Roosevelt Island became a nesting ground for his worst anti-democratic impulses.
Before Cuomo took office in 2011, the community blossomed with newly won power. After years of struggle, Islanders got the right to vote on who serves on RIOC’s board. Legally, the board has authority to run the business, hire and fire executives plus crucial power over budgeting.
This made sense because RIOC is self-supporting, receiving not a dime of operating money from the state — a dubious gift from Cuomo’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo. The great majority of this state agency’s money comes out of Roosevelt Islanders’ pockets.
Shouldn’t the community have some power over how it’s spent?
Taxation without representation went out with King George, didn’t it?
Not in Andrew Cuomo’s universe.
Not only did he brush aside an established voting process, he peeled off elected members until the few remaining were essentially powerless.
First was the widely admired Jonathan Kalkin. Cuomo bounced him from the board in favor of a nonresident. Howls of frustration grew as his replacement soon vanished under a cloud of suspected corruption.
Cuomo did not bring Kalkin back nor did he fill the seat with anyone else for the better part of a decade.
But that was a minor blip, in retrospect, only the beginning.
The compound mess Cuomo left for Kathy Hochul
With Cuomo, it was all about attrition. After dispatching Kalkin, Cuomo did not fill vacancies for years while exhausted board members retired: Dr. Kathy Grimm, Fay Christian and Margie Smith.
Finally, four resident seats were empty.
Interestingly, all the departed board members were women, and all were appointed after winning the votes of their neighbors.
Only three local representatives remained, and getting whatever Cuomo wanted required winning over just one of them, because the two political appointees on the board were rock solid acolytes. But that was even easier because only one of the local leftovers, Michael Shinozaki, ever showed any appetite for bucking Cuomo.
Rubbing it in, in spite of enabling legislation giving the board the right to hire and fire executives, Cuomo’s team sent them his choices and ordered them to vote, “Yes.” The now pacified board, with occasional, meaningless grumbles, cratered every time.
A disturbing undercutting of democracy, but nobody with any authority objected to the tyrannical behavior. Most disappointing were elected officials pledged to represent residents, not operatives on the Second Floor in Albany.
In 2019, Cuomo finally appointed three new board members, all men and only one with any prior involvement in community activities.
Clear enough, the governor now had himself a board of enablers where every vote was a unanimous, “Yes.”
And it’s no wonder any semblance of transparency vanished as RIOC hunkered down in deep secrecy, no matter who paid the bills. Cuomo always had their backs, no matter how gross or unethical their actions.
If Kathy Hochul is sincere in her promises, that’s what’s gotta go first.
Kathy Hochul and Roosevelt Island: What Must Happen In Good Faith
On getting the state working again, Hochul was dramatic.
“That begins with a dramatic change in culture, accountability, and no tolerance for individuals who crossed the line,” she said, directing an “overhaul of state government policies on sexual harassment and ethics.”
She also said she would direct state agencies to review their compliance on state laws involving transparency and issue a report. That task should be easy for RIOC, which has become about as transparent as a lichen-coated rock on a Colorado mountainside.
“We just say, ‘No,'” is RIOC’s current policy on transparency.
An Agenda for Change
If Kathy Hochul is sincere about fixing the Cuomo mess, especially the Roosevelt Island version, there are a few musts. And these are just the start.
- Clearing out RIOC’s bumbling and under-qualified executives makes a good beginning. Quality executives, like CFO John O’Reilly and PSD’s Kevin Brown and Anthony Amoroso, can shine under solid leadership. But much of the top level crew serves notice daily that the Peter Principle* is alive and well. Some politically protected patronage employees hang on, but the politics changed.
- Step One in bringing the public back into this allegedly public benefit corporation means reestablishing voting for board membership. Board members unaccountable to the community is ridiculous, un-American and unfair.
- Step Two in bringing the public back really is mostly about yanking RIOC out from behind closed doors and into the sunlight. Ongoing, transparent discussions with community members through the media and public meetings are a necessity everywhere else. Why not here? When Frank Farance served as RIRA president, he arranged regular town halls. Board members met with the community.
- Investigate, investigate, investigate… An independent look at dubious spending without enough oversight is essential. The Main Street Retail master lease, the secretive deal where Langan earns for turning Southpoint Park into a mini Brooklyn Bridge Park, etc… Maybe just bad judgment. Maybe worse.
- Finally, because firing her was grossly unethical, reinstate Susan Rosenthal, settling her lawsuit against the state.
*Under the Peter Principle, managers are promoted until reaching their maximum level of incompetence.
That’s probably as much advice as Kathy Hochul needs for now, but we’re hoping for change. We’re hoping she’s as good as her word and a breath of fresh air for New York State and Roosevelt Island.
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