Transparency from New York State agencies was high on the agenda when Governor Kathy Hochul took office in the last week of August 2021. Reversing policies steeped in secrecy was an early promise. Every agency was ordered to produce a plan for increasing transparency. But over the past year, RIOC never released one.
Nonetheless, The Daily has obtained a draft, marked “PRIVILEGED & CONFIDENTIAL,” that RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes submitted directly to the governor. It’s an embarrassing mess. Or would be embarrassing if RIOC had any kind of standards.
by David Stone
Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s Proposed Transparency Plan/Dated October 20th, 2021
Although we know that the document was received by the governor’s office, we don’t know if it was accepted, sent back or revised. Shame on Hochul’s staff if they accepted it. But shame on Haynes for submitting anything so awful in the first place. (See an unedited copy attached below.)
There is no indication that anyone else at RIOC worked on the plan or that the Board of Directors saw or approved it. It appears that Haynes flew solo on this mission, lacking the wisdom to ask for guidance or editing. He even uses the first person singular – “I” – throughout, as if proud of his work.
He shouldn’t be.
The first sentence hints at the awfulness that follows:
“To begin, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) is a public benefit
corporation, mandated by the RIOC Act, to develop, operate and maintain the infrastructure of
Roosevelt Island.” – Shelton J. Haynes, RIOC Draft Transparency Plan.
From the get-go, Haynes, whether through intention or ignorance, misstates the very basics of his own agency’s mission, limiting it to infrastructure only.
On its website, RIOC describes its mission “…to plan, design, develop, operate, and maintain Roosevelt Island. With a focus on innovative and environmentally friendly solutions, RIOC is committed to providing services that enhance the island’s residential community.”
Didn’t anyone tell the boss?
The Salad That Followed
The rest of the first paragraph is a patched-together outline of RIOC’s role in the community. In such a high-profile document, you’d expect a carefully written summary. Examples abound in the state agency’s own files that could be copied and pasted. Instead, Haynes wings it. And fails.
In the attached document, you can read the whole, tortured mess, but if you have a weak stomach, this should suffice: “There are in excess of 12,000 residents living on Roosevelt Island,” repeats a false narrative. The community has never reached that figure, let alone passed it.
Directed by a state directive on increasing transparency, Haynes says…
“Based on this review, I can report that RIOC’s transparency-related practices and policies
are strong. In addition to a compliance-related review of policies and practices I conducted a
review of RIOC’s interactions with the public. RIOC prides itself on its community engagement
practices. We have a robust program to communicate with members of the public and receive
input from all stakeholders.”
At that time, Haynes had a media blackout going back more than a year, and staffers were told that communicating with certain community members on a blacklist would result in their immediate dismissal.
Full disclosure, The Daily was and is on that blacklist, but we are not alone.
Also, according to a legal filing by former RIOC staff attorney Arthur Eliav, Haynes’s Chief Counsel, Gretchen Robinson, had already established stall tactics blocking timely Freedom of Information responses.
Why Does Transparency Matter in Local Government Behavior?
Sunshine laws are designed to let the public see what their government is doing. The basic idea is that if we can watch, our elected and appointed officials will behave better. They’ll be less likely to make deals in secret, engage in corruption or violate our civil liberties.
But when transparency laws are ignored, as Haynes does with such arrogance, the public trust is eroded. When transparency requests are routinely denied or ignored, we have to wonder what our government is hiding.
In New York State, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) sets out specific procedures for state and local agencies to follow when responding to public requests for information. But too often, agencies find ways to circumvent the law.
The result is a government that operates in the dark, making decisions without public input and accountability.
In her transparency initiative, Governor Hochul asked state agencies to post their transparency plans on their websites. But when we went looking for RIOC’s plan, we couldn’t find it.
We eventually located the draft plan elsewhere.
You can read Haynes’s transparency plan for yourself below. But be warned, it’s not an easy read. It’s full of jargon and convoluted sentence constructions. In other words, it’s not transparent.
Robust Community Engagement Strategy
“Specifically,” Haynes writes, “RIOC regularly holds community meetings to provide information and solicit input on a variety of projects or items important to members of the community. These bi-monthly targeted community engagement meetings composed of RIOC staff and several community groups, place emphasis on island initiatives and projects that impact the public.”
Ever been to one? Okay, then let’s try this: Have you ever even heard of one?
But the fun doesn’t stop there.
“RIOC has many informal community touchpoints in addition to our formalized robust community engagement strategy. Specifically, as Roosevelt Island is a small community, many members of the community regularly engage us just walking on the street.”
Forgetting for now that he writes this after COVID infections returned in force, it’s more of a throwback. That’s how things were when Susan Rosenthal was in office. She, like Charlene Indelicato immediately before her, was regularly present on Main Street. She rode the Tram, and she was always open to informal conversations.
This is not what the Haynes regime did or does. It’s a blatant falsehood.
Transparency on the Website
While RIOC’s website is useful for some things, it’s poorly maintained. A list of local businesses is so far out of date, it includes Roosevelt Island Urgent Care which went painfully out of business in 2019. Also, in a feature promoting parks, it has a photo carousel of Southpoint. But every photo is from before the park was ripped apart in an ill-conceived redesign two years ago.
But the real corker here is this: “Also posted to our website our newsletter, which is a point of pride for me as President because of the level of community engagement it brings.”
Yes, the grammar is dreadful for an alleged college graduate, but the misdirection is worse. The deeply boring and self-promotional newsletter had just gone through a five-month gap in production. It did pick up some pace thereafter, pumping out three more issues before flopping out in March.
Proposed Plan to Expand Transparency and Expected Timeline
Echoing the wording of the state directive, Haynes pumps out some plans that don’t amount to much and, for the most part, were never executed. He seems exhausted by tossing the word salad already and fails to come up with anything impressive or even slightly inspiring.
For example, he talks about translating the RIOC newsletter into other unspecified languages. What’s the demand for that?
He pledges attendance at Community Board 8 meetings as a form of outreach and transparency which is lame as well as misleading. But he falters toward the finish line with this gem of a contradiction in terms: “…electronic records including softcopy original documentation.”
He was tired, man. Why didn’t someone who’d completed a few college courses help him?
It’s clear that Governor Hochul’s transparency directive was met with resistance by RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes. His response was filled with obfuscation and jargon, making it difficult to understand. Furthermore, Haynes’s proposed plan to expand transparency and outreach fell short, failing to address many of the issues raised by the Governor. Overall, it seems that transparency is not a priority for the RIOC under Haynes’s leadership.