The Critical Week Ahead for RIOC and Roosevelt Island

The Critical Week Ahead for RIOC and Roosevelt Island

A congestion of lawsuits, failing public services, rising crime and a feuding board meeting color this critical week on Roosevelt Island. A chance for major progress is on the horizon – along with little hope for its success. Here are the dynamics, the major ones anyway.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Even for a community and state agency frequently swollen with conflict, this week looms large. Many unresolved items are coming to a head or should be. But with a concurrent history of dysfunction, hope for successful resolutions is hard to find.

The absence of democracy, fostered and intensely supported in Albany, seeds conflict because it abolishes the primary avenue most of America travels toward settlement. The majority does not rule here, and the governor’s office likes it that way, regardless of costs.

With virtually no community outreach from a bunkered RIOC, how do you untangle the many problems?

Major Concerns for a Critical Week

The Roosevelt Island Tram

Now notorious for numerous, unpredictable swinging and swaying incidents, some violent and leading to illness and injury, the Tram also suffers from sardine-can-like overcrowding with the busy holiday season ahead.

RIOC and operating partner Leitner-POMA appear as lost as hikers using Google Maps in the woods. Because the state agency inspired it, overcrowding will not be handled without a change in management. Countless complaints haven’t dented RIOC’s determination to keep packing bodies into cabins, haplessly hoping it will solve deepening financial problems.

It’s like they believe increased current mismanagement will track down historic mismanagement and solve it. It’s a clown show without the comedy.

As for the repeated swinging and swaying incidents, at week’s end, RIOC pushed out an international press release assuring the tourists’ world that there were no safety issues.

Tell it to the passengers thrown to the floor in abrupt stops at the apex on trips and those who have reported fear, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

The press release alone echoes RIOC’s indifference to community concerns. It was not shared with local media, and residents were not even favored with a “Team RIOC” advisory.

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Will Playing the Race Card Save Hayes & Robinson?

Their jobs apparently in jeopardy, lawsuits and investigations peppering the organization like Buffalo Wings, RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes and Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson threw Team Hochul against the wall with a lawsuit of their own.

The lawsuit charges me specifically with leading a racist campaign aimed at destroying their reputations. It says that local elected officials chimed in with support and that Albany overseers under Governor Hochul shot down efforts to defend themselves.

Described as a “Hail Mary” pass at saving their jobs by backing Team Hochul against the wall, Haynes and Robinson may have succeeded.

Although still bunkered, Haynes returned to Blackwell House after concluding an extended medical leave without any observable hitch. This suggests he’s here to stay, although 92% of residents voted in favor of his ouster. But who cares what the community thinks?

Will RIOC’s Board Confirm Mary Cunneen as Permanent COO?

Another highlight for this critical week, the $195,000/yearly salary job is on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, although she’s been in the position and collecting the dough for over a year.

Exactly one year ago, on Cunneen’s watch, RIOC destroyed a healthy, century-old red maple because, apparently, it blocked the view from Southtown condos, reducing their value. RIOC, of course, never explained.

Let’s review, although RIOC’s board will not.

  1. The last year, with Cunneen as Acting Chief Operating Officer, has been one of the worst in RIOC’s history. That’s saying something. The prevalence of low- and no-show jobs continues at a high level. If you can’t fix that, you probably can’t fix anything.
  2. Two de-greening Roosevelt Island incidents have involved Cunneen, either as Parks Manager or COO. Early in her career with RIOC, without public discussion, she approved destroying two old-growth trees from the Rivercross Lawn. The contract award was as questionable as was the need for de-greening the area. Then, in 2022, a century old red maple was cut down for no good reason.
  3. Although it’s unclear if she was the leader, Cunneen fronted an aggressive effort to evict Wildlife Freedom Foundation’s sanctuary in Southpoint Park. As a story fraught with dishonesty emerged, RIOC’s communications director threw up his hands, telling The Daily that he was reporting lies because that’s what managers were telling him. Ironically, while the sanctuary was saved, the incident exposed RIOC’s feeding water fountains with contaminated water for decades.
  4. In a sprawling investigation, the state Inspector General continues looking into the Swift Emergency Medical testing site on Roosevelt Island. On Haynes’s behalf, Cunneen fronted the operation. While no wrongdoing has officially been reported so far, Cunneen appeared before the board, asking for approval months after over a hundred thousand dollars were already spent, apparently in conflict with purchasing guidelines. She complicated that by reporting usage numbers that conflicted with reality. Under her watch, RIOC’s contractor never apparently reported any results to state of city authorities.

While it’s possible, even likely, that Cunneen has some accomplishments she can be proud of at RIOC, how would we know when it all happens behind the bunker?

A Potential Nightmare Budget On the Board Agenda

Even a cursory look at the budget Team RIOC cooked up for 2024 is hair-raising.

For example, it supports a huge increase in spending without any apparent improvement in performance. Even critical work on the near-collapsing East Seawall is pushed back at least two years.

Pull apart the weeds and deceptive allocations and what you see is a massive increase in personnel spurred by staffing at Sportspark and salary increase attributed to “market conditions.” (Not kidding. Not a misprint.)

More startling is how RIOC proposes paying for it – they say they will increase Tram ridership by about 50%. (Also, not a joke.) Cabins, already badly overcrowded and unsafe, will get more of the same if RIOC gets its wish.

That’s impossible, of course, and the most likely result is a continuation of financial failures that reduced last year’s operating profit from around $5 million to $1 million.

But what the hell? Roosevelt Islanders have deep pockets.


Under current management, we don’t see any prospects for resolution of any of the concerns listed here, let alone the lesser ones that won’t go away by themselves either.

But hope springs eternal. Watch for any blip on the radar suggesting improvement or even awareness. It could snowball… And the Giants can still save their season and advance to the Super Bowl.

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