Under Susan Rosenthal, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) was a far better state agency than it is today. Earlier this week, we reported on weaknesses in her court case. She may very well lose, but in ethics and performance, she outshined what followed. It’s not even close. Her biggest flaw, it turned out was trusting people she shouldn’t have. Her closest associates betrayed her.
by David Stone
The clearest picture of the difference between RIOC under Susan Rosenthal and her successor, Shelton J. Haynes, is in two stories.
First, Rosenthal was regularly out in the community. You never knew when you’d bump into her, but you could be sure you would. As a reporter, I was thankful for that because she never ran for cover no matter how critical the story. Sometimes a story popped up just from a casual conversation with her.
Susan was open. And at least as honest as politicians usually are.
Our last on-the-street conversation was on a sunny Friday afternoon in Southtown, near Riverwalk Commons. As always, she approached me with a smile. She asked me how things were going with a lawsuit in which I was involved.
I briefed her, and she gave me, absolutely free, the best legal advice ever. (She forbid me from ever repeating it.) She’s a career attorney with hundreds of cases under her belt. I followed her suggestions, and the case was settled in my favor within a couple of weeks.
Keep in mind, now, that, as a journalist, I was not – in her attorney’s words – “hardly a fan.” We tangled over many issues but agreed on many others. She never lost sight of the fact that I had a job to do, just as she did, and they were bound to conflict. It was never so personal we couldn’t talk or look each other in the eye.
Story #2: Along Came Shelton
Under the pretext of building a good media relationship, Shelton J. Haynes asked for a meeting within a month of this taking over RIOC. Sitting across the desk from him, I made my position clear during a long talk: “You are not my audience.”
My audience is Roosevelt Islanders, and unlike others covering the community, I see no value in compromising to get in the government’s good graces. While they may do many things well, all governments lie, cheat and steal to some extent. It’s a matter of how much and how often, not if.
Before wrapping up, I left Haynes with questions about toxic wastes in Southpoint Park that I believed needed managing before work on the shorelines began. He promised a detailed response the next day.
But he made excuses for two full days before starting the work with the toxic waste questions unanswered. I called him on it, and Haynes suggested talking it out. But I declined without his answering my questions – which he never did. We were off to a bad start.
I saw him next about six months later when walking the East Promenade with my wife near Cornell Tech. When I said, “Hello, Shelton,” he reacted in a friendly manner.
But then, he asked me who I was. When I told him, his face changed. The smile was gone, replaced by something cloudier.
Hoping to start a better back-and-forth, I volunteered that RIOC would get better coverage if it answered media questions. After just six months in office, he’d built a media blockade no other RIOC president ever found necessary.
Rather than talk calmly or even make a point, Haynes went ballistic. All I remember from the word salad that came flying out of him like thrown rocks was his insisting that he always acted with “the utmost integrity.”
He walked away angry, and we have never spoken again.
RIOC Under Susan Rosenthal
Early in her tenure, Rosenthal pushed the idea that RIOC needed to build things. The state agency was flush with cash after Cornell paid over $20 million for property surrounding the new tech campus. And Roosevelt Island needed a lot of work.
North of Southpoint Park, the seawall guardrails had been neglected for years. Paint peeled and fractures were visible in the concrete. Benches along the West Promenade were rotting. She got it all fixed fast, greatly improving the Island’s appearance and safety.
Under her watch, the Cultural Center became the finished home for Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, and she worked with Eastwood building management to finally eliminate a troubling mold infestation.
Badly needed work on Motorgate and the Roosevelt Island Bridge Helix solved longstanding problems. She was working with Board Member David Kapell on revitalizing the Atrium when COVID brought that to a halt.
Roosevelt Island of Art
Under Susan Rosenthal, RIOC got serious arts attention. Working with RIVAA President Tad Sudol, she opened the Blue Dragon children’s sculpture at the entrance to Southpoint Park and created a plinth in Good Shepherd Plaza devoted to new sculpture.
But her biggest win was bringing FIGMENT NYC to Lighthouse Park, wresting it away from Governors Island. For two years, state-of-the-art creations brought visitors flowing north on Roosevelt Island, instead of everyone jumping off subways and the Tram and heading south to Four Freedoms Park.
When I wrote articles critical of Rosenthal, I’d often get pushback from the community, something that hasn’t once happened with Haynes. People liked her and still do. One of my most read articles was about her returning for The Girl Puzzle ribbon-cutting. She was warmly welcomed.
Rosenthal talked with the community as well as listened, using board meetings as an open forum, but she also saw the value in honest public relations. She acted on it, too, recruiting a veteran specialist, Terrence MacCauley, to oversee messaging.
We knew much more, then, about how and what RIOC was up to. Under Susan Rosenthal, there was respect for Roosevelt Islanders. That’s not to say she was not influenced by Albany’s oversight, which according to court papers was intense. Or that she always gave us the straight dope. She didn’t.
But when COVID struck, she had RIOC in a good place for leadership. She stepped up with daily reports from MacCauley that included public health information, advice and positive topspin. She made the first few, very difficult months better with her advocacy.
But then, for no good reason, she was fired without warning, the result of staff betrayals from people she trusted. It hasn’t been the same around here since.
It’s much worse. More on that in the coming days.