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Raw, Ugly, Divisive-RIOC Scores Worst-Ever Board Meeting, September 2023


The timing was right for all the competing clashes at RIOC’s worst-ever board meeting, including an audience of rankled Roosevelt Islanders. Residents were mad at the board, the board was internally in conflict and Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson tried bullying everyone as a cure. The content was crazy as well as surprising.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

“I didn’t have the time or desire to watch that circus,” one observer emailed not long after the meeting ended. “Later on, I heard that it was a real crap show.”

That put it mildly.

Long smoldering anger and discontent in all directions boiled over into a meeting marked mostly by ugly revelations. And, as for leadership, well into the meeting Robinson finally got around to informing everyone that RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes was on “extended medical leave.”

How long has that been going on? Among a night filled with peculiar incidents, what marked this one was the lack of any board member response. Not one sent well wishes or “Get well soon?”, not even for show.

This laid the leadership mess on the shoulders of board chair RuthAnne Visnauskas, who never shows up, but sent a sourpuss surrogate. The quality of life in state government ain’t nuthin’ to brag about, it seems.

September 14th, 2023: RIOC’s Worst-Ever Board Meeting

That headline is provisional because, considering the track these clowns are on now, they may surpass this mess soon.

Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson passed the evening wrestling bears with a couple of dollops of bullying.

Public Session

The fun started early with several residents challenging RIOC’s performance, especially the flubbed transportation crisis. Although anger seemed at an all-time high, Robinson, stuck with running another board meeting, successfully ignored all of it.

That’s a RIOC tradition, but it didn’t last as one new board member, Ben Fhala stepped up, engaging the public in discussion.

Although Fhala’s thoughts weren’t impressive, they were a breakthrough. Robinson virtually screamed “Sacrilege” as she moved to shut him up.

“This time is reserved for public comment,” she demanded, talking over him as well as residents who just as firmly ignored her.

It was hardly the first time board members engaged the public, but Robinson wanted a quick end to it, for whatever reason. She didn’t get it.

Several times, audience members broke out in applause as others tried making RIOC’s blunders clear. All but Fhala turned the traditional deaf ear.

Margie Smith ripped apart Robinson’s posted legal rationale for refusing to help Islanders with Tram overcrowding, and Rick O’Conor lashed out over the corporation’s refusal to answer media inquiries.

O’Conor compared RIOC’s lack of minimal transparency with other public officials throughout the city and state, saying that several employees told him they were not allowed to speak to him. It didn’t bother any board member and will not engender any change.

Both were right as well as wasting their time. That became clearer as the night wore on. RIOC was not changing anything because, as always, they were right already.

The Problem with RIOC, Its Board and the Public

Public benefit corporations and public authorities are controlled by boards of directors made up of political appointees…?

Wikipedia on New York State Public Benefit Corporations

The question came up: “Who runs RIOC, the board or their employees?

It matters because, in the real world where you and I live, board members share fiduciary responsibility for RIOC’s operations. Increasingly, though, under Governor Kathy Hochul and Haynes, they’ve been stripped of authority.

It’s like being armed with a squirt gun that only shoots backward.

That horror story rang in as, in another dustup between Fhala and Robinson, it was disclosed that board members are forbidden from talking with employees and vice versa.

Now, that is, because employee/board interactions have previously been, not just common but also fruitful.

But when Fhala requested that ratification of one contract be tabled until someone from the Communications Department could be present for questions, he got a tangled runaround from Robinson and Visnauskas’s sourpuss surrogate.

The dynamic duo of deniers even broke the rules of a motion to table by Fhala that was seconded by Lydia Tang. They never ran a vote on it, voting instead on and approving the opposite.

As the tussle dragged hopelessly on, board member Howard “Go Along to Get Along” Polivy publicly accused Fhala of showboating, just by asking the question and arguing in its favor.

What Made This RIOC’s Worst-Ever Board Meeting

It’s simple, really. In the midst of all this internecine fighting, nothing got done.

Except for Fhala, the board’s refusal to honor the public’s request – at times, pleading – for help set a tone, but it kept humming along.

With only two voting items on the agenda, the board unanimously approved, without much discussion, the horrible deal the MTA forced on RIOC concerning OMNY for the Tram. They also rolled past Fhala’s motion, approving a contract renewal for communications.

Yet, they saved the worst for last. In one useless gesture, residents were shown that their hopes for Tram changes were useless. They’d already learned how successfully internal policy snuffed input on all levels, but here was the coup de gråce.

Polivy, who previously trashed Fhala with an assault accusing him of showing off after he spoke up for residents, did the deed.

Forcing a pause before going into executive session, Polivy did exactly what he accused Fhala of.

One at a time, he had PSD Chief Kevin Brown and Transportation Director Cy Opperman stand up and explain how they were doing the best they could with their resources.

Although residents had already delineated why that was not so, no board member objected, not even Fhala. And the public be damned.

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