Misguided Missile: Common Council Protests RIOC’s New PPF Deal

Last fall, RIOC announced a new PPF deal, the intended goal of which was making objective sense of how they award Public Purpose Grants. With the process growing increasingly bizarre, year after year, this kept the process from spinning out of control by yanking egos and personal agendas out. But the Residents Association Common Council protested in a rambling letter undermining their own points.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

About the PPF Deal Protest

Public Purpose Fund Grants support local art organization like the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. Shown here in a performance, Kimbirdlee Fadner and Russ Cusick. Photo: Irina Hage, Irina Island Images

Last things first, it doesn’t help that the letter of protest’s author’s name is misspelled: Residents Association Vice President Erin Feely-Nahem is, instead, “Erin Feely-ahem,” a somewhat humorous revision. But it fits with profound errors before it.

Feely-Nahem’s letter boldly asserts, “Recent legislation requires that 3% of RIOC’s budget be allocated for community services.” That’s untrue, and when it forms the foundation of the protest, it doubly serves as ridiculous.

Responding to pressure from residents, the state legislature passed a bill allowing RIOC the freedom of awarding up to 3% of its operating budget for the grants. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it into law. But the state agency has never come close to that ideal. Four years ago, pushed by then board member Margie Smith, the board bumped its measly $100,000 commitment up to a measly $150,000. That’s nowhere near the $1,000,000 allowed by law.

RIOC’s stinginess aside, Feely-Naheem’s letter objecting to the PPF deal errs in mistating the details. Maybe the Common Council is cloudy on the issue or completely misunderstands. It’s hard to figure.

RIOC’s Deal with New York Community Trust

Introducing government ethicist Markus Sztejnberg as a staff member – he isn’t – was a clue. The once coveted and fair minded granting process swung out of control in recent years, mired in favoritism as well a peculiar awards.

Common Council presentation of PPF recommendations in 2018.

There were plenty of mistakes, but the worst, as an example, was a grant for tango lessons. The group getting the grant was not a local organization, and its work duplicated work already offered by Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. At the same time, RIOC and its Common Council partners slashed awards for MSTDA and other local groups. No rational explanation emerged.

Complaints roused some official enough that Sztejnberg came to the rescue. It’s unlikely that ethics-challenged RIOC initiated the call, but no one else took credit.

Sztejnberg recommended pulling the process out of RIOC’s hands, turning it over to New York Community Trust. NYCT is an experienced granting group that has maintained high standards for years. The PPF deal has them using $500,000 over three years and includes $150,000 in annual grants for Roosevelt Island nonprofits. The remaining funds go for administration.

In supporting the deal, RIOC CFO John O’Reilly emphasized cost savings because of a major reduction in staff time. But it also got some dreadful players out of the game.

Bottom Line on the PPF Deal and Common Council Objections

Probably the most profound misunderstanding by the Common Council comes from its failure at recognizing how awful and deeply unfair the process has been. Angry complaints forced major revisions in each of the last four years. And neither the Common Council nor RIOC showed any ability or taste for fixing it.

Whoever instigated the change, bringing in an outside ethicist was a wise decision. Common Council’s misshaped and error-filled protests notwithstanding, removing decisions from local egos, incompetence and personal agendas was the right thing to do.

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