Taking office in August, Governor Kathy Hochul promised increased openness among state agencies, but RIOC stonewalling increased. Either Hochul was blowing smoke or RIOC couldn’t care less about her directives.
By David Stone
RIOC Stonewalling Continues
Especially since the Shelton J. Haynes era began at RIOC, immediately after president/CEO was fired on never substantiated, potentially racist grounds, transparency withered. Governor Andrew Cuomo installed Haynes in a flash, and within days, he upended agency communications.
Appointing Erica Spencer-EL as director, sidelining veteran public information officer Terrence McCauley, Haynes committed to a communications head with little or no experience in the field. Some speculate that, like Cuomo and Donald Trump, Haynes feels secure only with loyalists forming protective circles around him.
But Spencer-EL did more. She bolstered RIOC stonewalling by declaring local communications limited to marketing and branding. After a drowsy board nodded in cowlike fashion, lines of communication with media slammed shut. Not only were routine daily requests for information ignored, staff members became inaccessible.
For example, a request for information about projects, directed at CFO John O’Reilly, drew a response instead from the new Communications Team. Check the website, it said. Their website, of course, is routinely out of date and short on details.
A Deteriorating Climate
The media blackout extended into less legally viable areas, and that’s where Hochul’s promise of transparency raised hopes. But whether she spoke in good faith or not, the message made little difference with RIOC. Secrecy and behind the scenes deal-making cut residents, stuck with all the bills, out of the loop.
RIOC Stonewalling, A Current Example Among Others
Way back in May, a man, still unidentified, died after a swim in Sportspark. When RIOC, under the Haynes/Spencer-EL regime, blocked release of any details, we made a request, using Freedom of Information Law leverage. The above document contains our request embedded in RIOC’s stonewalling response.
FOIL opens up public access and keeps government from hiding information or, at least, tries. It’s especially vital on Roosevelt Island, where outsiders set up barriers between it and the community. Access matters because, through the hidden RIOC tax, residents pay all the bills.
But after five months, RIOC can’t find the time for scaring up a single document. And it’s not a rarity. RIOC has similarly withheld legally requested data and documents about…
- Staffing and payroll
- The deal cut a year ago with Swift Emergency Medical for setting up a COVID testing site
- The headquarters move from 591 Main into a much smaller, more expensive location at 524 Main
Months have passed with only stalling to show for it. Time might just be concrete.
RIOC stonewalling reinforces suspicions that the state agency has something – rather, some things – hidden for reasons unknown. Defying the law is a matter of concern, but poking a finger in the governor’s eye is another.
This might, though, be different than appearances suggest because Hochul may have been more interested in show than actual change. Stonewalling was a core feature of Cuomo’s administration, especially where questions about corruption rose.
With RIOC, a longtime patronage dump at the disposal of party loyalists seeking jobs, the actions may also protect incompetence. Patronage hires come shielded by their patrons and, except in the most extreme cases, can’t be fired or even demoted.
This means Hochul, as well as Roosevelt Islanders, may be stuck with the mess we have because the roots of patronage run so deep.
Under normal conditions, time will tell, but the power of stonewalling may prove that’s not so.
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