Most Roosevelt Islanders have never heard of the Common Council let alone its crucial role in getting community interests in front of decision-makers. Sure, they may have heard of RIRA, but that’s the Residents Association, not the Common Council. The difference matters.
Why Do We Have A RIRA Common Council?
Here it is in a nutshell:
- To represent the interests of its members to all governmental, quasi-governmental and private institutions that develop policy affecting Roosevelt Island and its residents; that supervise or manage our housing and that supervise or manage other Island operations; and
- To ensure that the health, safety and welfare of its members and the quality of life in our community are maintained and improved.
Enabling this mission, the Residents Association elects council members as well as an executive leadership team. That’s the idea, anyway, and it isn’t happening.
But what is the Residents Association anyway? In short, it’s everyone who lives on Roosevelt Island. To be a member and vote in elections, you don’t have to be an American citizen. You just have to live on the Island.
So, how come you know so little about this? And what elections? Those are the problems…
…because the Residents Association has become like those final moments of a balloon’s life where it’s whipping around as the last air blows out. Then, it flops on the ground.
We’re not there yet but close.
In the beginning, a RIRA Common Council was formed as a counterpoint to RIOC’s detached dominance over the community. It became the first elected body representing Roosevelt Islanders.
There were fiery voices of resistance: Ron and Fay Vass. Patrick Stewart. The guy we used to know as David Kraut. Deirdre Breslin. Karen Stewart. The list of pioneers goes on.
But somewhere, the Common Council lost its spark. The details are not as important as the fact that it happened and how it effects Roosevelt Island today.
Why It Matters
Because it’s the only elected body representing the community, elected officials recognize it as the voice of the community. That recognition was hard bought by the efforts of folks like Patrick Stewart and Matthew Katz who forged relationships with city council members, state senators and assembly members
And because the Common Council is really all we have, those officials still listen.
That’s what makes its irrelevancy so deflating for the community.
Common Council Problems
The Common Council is now like a bucket with nothing in it. No oats for the horses. No water. Essentially, no anything. They haven’t had any elections since 2018, throwing its validity into question. That matters little because they don’t really do much these days but wrangle between personal agendas.
But sadly, you could see it coming.
As a two-time council member myself – in two different centuries – one of my first efforts after starting The Daily was nudging the group towards greater diversity and inclusiveness. Some clear holes in the fabric of community representation needed repair.
Perhaps most glaring was a refusal to honor the residents of Coler Hospital with even one representative. There was no good reason for it. They were integrated in the community otherwise, and many were here longer than other residents.
In the years since, residents living in The House at Cornell Tech have similarly been excluded.
And that was multiplied by the absence – mainly out of indifference – of representation from many of the other buildings. It’s only gotten worse today as, with 44 Common Council seats available, no more than 21 are filled. And that’s with a clearly undemocratic dominance from Island House and Westview.
That’s weak for a group claiming Island-wide representation. Most community members know nothing about the Common Council or even who their representative is – if they even have one.
It’s a fatal flaw.
Reaction and Results
The Daily’s first post about the Common Council’s lack of relevance sparked an angry response from then Vice President Sherie Helstien. It was a wide-ranging personal attack that made no effort to counter the concerns raised.
When Trump-like attacks substitute for argument, it’s a sure sign things are heading downhill.
And they have.
The Common Council has since lost its two most effective activities. After several years of grant recommendations polluted by personal agendas that had to be fixed by RIOC, it lost its role in recommending public purpose fund grants. RIOC turned that over to a city-wide nonprofit with agendas of its own, essentially pulling the community out of the process.
Then, after roughly a decade of monthly meetings with the Public Safety Department’s Chief, RIOC President/CYA Shelton J. Haynes stopped it. Haynes has no stomach of community discourse, even when it’s mainly an hour of easy to swat softballs.
Now, without those once significant activities and no genuine claim to valid community representation, what’s next?
The Common Council Must…
- Restore its authority by a vigorous campaign of inclusion. Bring the awareness of Coler into the fold as well as the brilliance Cornell Tech offers.
- Flex some muscle in standing up to RIOC, now in what many consider its worst incarnation under Governor Kathy Hochul and Haynes.
- Make their case with enough residents that community members want to serve. Roosevelt Island is like any other community. A lot of people want to serve, but very few want to waste their time listening to others voice their personal agendas and quarrel over Roberts Rules of Order. Hint: Both are recipes for brain-numbing indifference.
- Hold elections. Current President Rossana Ceruzzi has tried, but other members of the Common Council must pitch in. Otherwise, it has no valid claim for Island-wide representation with elected and other officials at all.