RIOC reform, sought by residents for many years, is on the cusp. All it takes is a signature by Governor Kathy Hochul to make a bill championed by Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Senator José Serrano a reality. Here’s what it covers – and still lacks.
by David Stone
RIOC Reform Commitment
At the end of last year and just after the start of 2022, I appreciated long conversations with both Seawright and Serrano. Seawright even came to the Island, sharing coffees and a lot of ideas at Nisi. The Senator set up a conference call in January.
Both had sponsored bills similar to the latest multiple times in previous legislative sessions. But Republican power, especially in the Senate, blocked passage. Now, after elections changed the landscape, we stressed to them the significance of RIOC reforms in enhancing local democracy.
Happily, the bills both representatives passed met all but one criteria for bringing Roosevelt Islanders the kind of political power they deserve. That is, at least equal to what other New Yorkers and nearly all American communities already have.
In some ways, the bills went above and beyond what we hoped for.
A Residency Requirement for RIOC’s Chief Executive Officer
This is huge because the situation today is akin to a corporation’s top dog not working for the company he runs. It’s genuinely bizarre, and everyone knows it.
Serrano and Seawright, though, were finally able to do something about it.
Their bill requires the RIOC’s CEO reside on Roosevelt Island. None ever has. In the case, for example, of the current CEO, Shelton J. Haynes, the law stipulates, “A non-resident CEO would be required to relocate to the island within one year of appointment.”
The idea is that the political head of the community should become a member of it, not an outsider poking around without getting actively involved. And it’s not that past CEOs haven’t cared. Some – Shane, Indelicato, Rosenthal – have, but the current version bunkered inside Blackwell House stands as an example of how disconnected one can be.
Board Member Residency Too
“Clarify the residency requirement for certain public appointments to the Board of Directors of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation and stipulate for their immediate resignation from the board upon the termination of such residency,” Seawright summarizes.
As we know from observing the board over recent years, residency does not mean putting the community first. Nor does it mean that Albany cannot dangle strings controlling RIOC remotely. But it’s a start.
The bill also ends the mess created by Governor Cuomo, in 2020, when he allowed resident board members to stay on even after they moved away. This tipped the balance over to nonresidents. But Jeffrey Escobar recognized the issue and resigned while Cuomo crony Dave Kapell held on until public pressure finally prevailed.
Overcoming yet another Cuomo tactic that resulted in reducing local authority, the bill provides for the appointment, within 60 days, of a successor when a board member leaves within an unexpired term.
Cuomo twiddled his fingers while resident board members – who serve as volunteers without compensation – left, leading to outside influence far greater than the existing law intended.
Are residency requirements for local officials effective?
There’s a lot of debate about whether residency requirements for public officials are effective.
In general, the idea is that if you don’t live in the community you’re supposed to serve, you can’t fully understand the issues and problems residents face every day.
Of course, this isn’t always true. Some officials who live elsewhere can be very engaged and effective.
But in general, the thinking is that if you don’t have a personal stake in the community, it’s easier to make decisions that are not in the best interests of residents.
It’s also worth noting that many other communities have residency requirements for their public officials, including New York City.
RIOC Reform and Jobs for Residents
To her credit, Seawright reacted with some shock, that afternoon in Nisi, when told that RIOC does not advertise available jobs locally. In fact, several recent vacancies for executives showed up on the online jobs website Indeed, without any local notice.
The Seawright/Serrano Bill changes that.
It would “Require the posting of job vacancies on the corporation’s website,” Seawright summarized in a press release.
That doesn’t guarantee hiring or even fair consideration, but it does mean transparency. The state will have to be upfront about jobs that anyone can apply for. As a side benefit, it at least makes more difficult the behind-the-scenes patronage hirings that have infiltrated RIOC with unqualified incompetents.
Sunlight poisons corruption.
So, What’s Still Missing?
What’s missing, first of all, is Hochul’s signature. Nothing guarantees her signature or prevents her veto. Despite big talk about change, Hochul has been worse for Roosevelt Island than Cuomo. She’s allowed RIOC to maintain a media blackout and dodge freedom of information requests.
Her reasons for doing those things are political, relating directly to her election campaign. The same influences may well lead her to resist RIOC reform. A dense wave of corruption and mismanagement claims has not reduced her protection of current, underperforming – although highly paid – executives.
That said, the gorilla in the room is Roosevelt Island’s glaring lack of democracy. Through the hidden RIOC Tax, residents cough up the cash for 90% or more of RIOC’s operations. But none get a vote nor any other say in how the money is spent or who spends it.
This is like throwing money into a pond and letting the fish do what they want with it, no questions asked. It goes without saying – I’ll say it again anyway – this is not how the rest of America works, nor is there any reason that it should.
That such a hopelessly undemocratic situation exists is simply a matter of Albany retaining power over this community. And it turned RIOC into a patronage dump.
What’s Needed for True RIOC Reform
We need Governor Hochul’s signature enabling critical change. That’s vital. Everything falls down without it. Although both Seawright and Serrano have clout in Albany, Roosevelt Islanders have none. We hope Hochul does the right thing anyway.
Finally, we need voting. It doesn’t have to be binding, but an advisory vote giving the governor and mayor a list of possible board members voted on by their neighbors is simply another right thing.
It’s not full democracy, but it’s closer to the American way than anything we have now.
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