When they were good… RIOC before Andrew Cuomo

When they were good… RIOC before Andrew Cuomo

I got to thinking about RIOC before Andrew Cuomo while researching something else. Looking for a draft of the first article I wrote that mentioned AVAC problems, I stumbled on a RIOC that was good, friendly, mindful of the folks who live here.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

“If it were up to me, the buildings would be required to have more restrictive chutes,” Tom Turcic told me. He referred to the AVAC system.

“You wouldn’t believe what we find in there–computer monitors, bed frames… Anything that fits gets thrown in…”

And yet, now, we find exactly the same problem, and in the interim, RIOC’s done nothing about it.

RIOC before Andrew Cuomo

I wrote that piece in the waning months of 2009. In January 2011, Andrew Cuomo became governor and the head of RIOC. But the change was more than a name and a little over a year’s time.

Seen here with historian Judith Berdy, Steve Shane came back for the Tram’s 40th birthday party in 2016.

President/CEO, at the time, Steve Shane remains the only one promoted to that job while serving on the board of directors.

“Just come by anytime,” Shane told me after we first met.

He wasn’t afraid of local media, had nothing to hide and welcomed a good debate. But I never took him up on that because I couldn’t believe he was really that free with his time.

So, I always set something up in advance. This time, it was for jump starting a story about Roosevelt Island infrastructure.

After a brief chat, he sent me across the hall where I met with Vice President of Operations Fernando Martinez. Although Martinez talked about straightening out operations and increasing discipline, it was a little odd… because he later went to prison for, among other things, bringing a pay to play operation with him when he joined RIOC.

It was different than with Shane where we talked about the community’s leadership crisis and support for the arts. Martinez was all business. Or so it seemed.

The Contrast…

Hunkered down in Blackwell House and guarded by Public Safety, current President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes barely nods at the media, appears to have oodles to hide and never tells anyone to stop by anytime.

The fall off is drastic, and much has to do with RIOC becoming a thickening patronage dump. RIOC before Andrew Cuomo, of course, had patronage jobs. The practice is as contagious as the coronavirus, but then as now, the difference is in what’s done to contain it.

Think of the current state of affairs as being like Mississippi in the pandemic, and both are in critical condition.

Although RIOC is not without solid professionals — John O’Reilly, Prince Shah, Kevin Brown, among others — there’s plenty of key people protected by patrons in jobs for which they were never qualified.

That’s why the state agency hides away so much, fights off scrutiny and trips over its own incompetence.

Swift COVID-19 Rapid Testing Site
A day after RIOC’s Swift Rapid Testing site’s opening, a cannon would have a hard time finding targets inside the empty facility.

Contradictions abound while answers are scarce about details surrounding the rapid testing site RIOC opened in January.

With an effort seeming to have the best intentions, why did RIOC prefer hiding virtually all details? You’d expect transparency and a healthy round of taking credit, but that never happened.

It’s just one example, among others, of inexplicable secrecy, with the state blocking out the people paying the bills. Hard imagining a good reason.

Who profited?

And so forth…

RIOC before Andrew Cuomo had few outright accusations of corruption, although there were always rumblings.

After Cuomo took control, that became thunder.

An independent inspection found RIOC riddled with misuse of funds, outright theft and compliance where caution should be. Martinez pleaded guilty to a felony, avoiding a trial. President/CEO Leslie Torres disappeared under a cloud of accusations about credit card abuse. And CFO Steve Chironis got booted for looking away while all the corruption blossomed.

There was more, of course. Corruption thrives best when living with its relatives. PSD chief Keith Guerra hit the road after protests over police violence filled Good Shepherd Plaza, and internal power plays left good employees with no choice apart from moving on.

But what I remember most about RIOC before Andrew Cuomo…

…is community involvement.

When I first met Steve Shane, he shared his concern over the community’s original core leadership aging out. Who would fill the gaps?

Steve rewarded the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association with a rent free gallery space and artists’ studio, recognizing sweat equity in their resurrecting the vacated by Bigelow Pharmacy. But he also knew how important art was to any community.

And the people he hired… While Shane may have had no choice with Martinez, an apparent patronage hire, he brought in Tom Turcic.

Tom described a normal workday for me…

“An email may come in from Steve Shane that one of the residents had a problem, a shock from a lamppost, for instance. We need to act immediately.” Turcic explained, describing how repair related responses often command attention for which only the most general preparation can be established. 

“We have only a five person team,” he added. “It’s way too few for a community our size. They run around responding to resident needs, replacing burned out bulbs and displaced Z bricks and clearing roof drains and so on.”

Community service-centric… That was RIOC I knew before Andrew Cuomo.

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