It was like a hex broken when RIOC’s Board openly debated an agenda item, refusing to roll over without objections. When newly reappointed Fay Christian demanded better answers, she gave Michael Shinozaki some much-needed partnership in resisting automatic, bobblehead-like approvals on everything.
by David Stone
The responsibilities of the board of directors in a New York State public benefit corporation are spelled out in the law, and so are the duties of the officers who run it.
The board of directors is responsible for “the general supervision and control” of the corporation. The president and chief executive officer are responsible for its “management and operations.”
In practice, however, too often the board of directors of a public benefit corporation is a rubber stamp for the president and CEO, approving whatever he or she wants without objection.
This was not the case, though, at RIOC’s June board meeting as it had been since Shelton J. Haynes displaced Susan Rosenthal in 2020.
For the first time in recent memory, actual debates took place on agenda items, and a vote was taken that didn’t automatically approve everything.
The reason was the seating of new board member Fay Christian, who made it clear she would not be a rubber stamp. Christian, who was reappointed to the RIOC Board by Governor Kathy Hochul in May, wasted no time in making her presence felt.
But First, It Was the Board’s Desultory Worst
Near the top of the agenda were audited financial reports for the last fiscal year needing Board approval. It was the bobblehead thing again.
They gave unanimous approval to documents so carelessly prepared they included the following as key employees:
- Muneshwar Jagdharry
- Erica Spencer-EL
- Arthur Eliav
None of the three have worked for RIOC in over six months. Jagdharry mysteriously disappeared just as this year’s budget was being prepared, and the other two were fired by Haynes just after Thanksgiving for reasons never publicly explained.
And then, they approved – also unanimously – an insurance binder that greatly increased RIOC’s liability in employee lawsuits. The past carrier, XL, was so battered by lawsuits that it rejected a renewal at any cost. Chubb, the new carrier, offered far less protection for the same cost.
All this resulted from more than a dozen managers leaving unhappily during Haynes’s reign, some filing lawsuits against him. But no one on the Board was moved to question the appropriateness of the strange series of departures or its cost.
It was tedious, but then, some action got going.
The Board, Rough Roads and the Tennis Bubble
The first crack in the hex came when CFO John O’Reilly tried pushing through a contract with Cameron Engineering for a roadway design project.
In short, it would pay Cameron for studying Main Street, from Blackwell House to Foodtown, its traffic patterns and underlying structures, and design solutions for such issues as rapidly deteriorating driving surfaces and double-parking.
The roadway simply was never designed to support today’s heavy loads for delivery and routine traffic. Over roughly a year with a price tag of $934K, Cameron would develop an actionable design. Construction would follow.
But Shinozaki wondered why the design area ended at River Road, the intersection directly across from Foodtown. Why not take it the rest of the way up to Coler Hospital where RIOC has promised an extension of Lighthouse Park in abandoned parking lots?
After O’Reilly offered a confusing rationale, Shinozaki got some support.
“I agree with Michael,” Christian said.
Why bring in all the equipment twice when the full need can be addressed at once?
In the end, the Board tabled the agenda item pending further review, an action they have not taken since Susan Rosenthal was President.
Christian Shines a Light on the Tennis Bubble
For the first time in memory, benefits for residents became a topic of concern before the Board. The Roosevelt Island Racquet Club asked for a 20-year extension of its lease, taking it virtually to the end of RIOC’s own lifespan.
The extension would enable financing for upgrade projects the club planned for keeping the structure viable over time. Banks, everyone agreed, need at least 30 years for consideration.
It looked like it would sail through until Christian spoke up.
She was not opposed to the extension in general, she said, “But I want something back for the community,” if the board approves.
It was like somebody threw open a window, and a gust of fresh air swept in.
O’Reilly’s response reflected the casual acceptance of whatever he and Haynes rolled out that had been the norm. The Racquet Club, he argued, was giving back to the community already… wait for it … by paying rent. He made the point twice.
But Christian wasn’t budging. Challenged by O’Reilly to identify what she was looking for in specifics, she suggested free tennis lessons for kids or scholarships.
Badly uninformed, O’Reilly complained that free lessons would undermine a free program already run by resident Joyce Short. It, he said, would put her out of business.
That was nonsense, of course, and it soon proved it when Skip Hartman, the Club’s Managing Partner called O’Reilly to tell him that, working with Short, they already provided free lessons and even donated time inside the facility.
That pleased everyone, and the extension was quickly approved.
But notice was served. In Christian, Governor Kathy Hochul had appointed a new member who would not join the conga line of bobbleheads anytime soon.
We appreciate your tossing in a few bucks to help with our expenses.
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