As the powers streaming out of Team Hochul in Albany fought hard to hold the failing status quo, local newcomers fought back. They may have won a little, if not enough, at this board meeting. Yet.
by David Stone
More of the Same
Some change, powered by board member Ben Fhala, rolled out, but first there was surprisingly more of the same.
For those still harboring hopes for real change at RIOC, dreams were quickly dashed as Homes & Community Renewal Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas pulled up a chair alongside RIOC President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes.
Visnauskas is officially the board’s chair, although she rarely attends, and this came off as an in-your-face gesture targeting the community. Throughout the evening, the pair settled in like best buds on a dinner date, whispering conspiratorily while others were at the podium and passing notes with chum Gretchen Robinson, RIOC’s Chief Counsel.
It was clear that the Hochul administration made peace with Haynes’s and Robinson’s race-based attack on elected officials and others. They were cool with it, even though Visnauskas is a defendant in their lawsuit.
Playing the race card as a Hail Mary seemed to have scored a winning touchdown. The losing team: Roosevelt Islanders.
Some Change. For Now
For most of the meeting, things went okay with a refreshing spirit of board members asking questions instead of nodding along like bobbleheads as in the past.
But before that got underway, most of the board sat stony-faced as residents whipped up a medley of complaints and appeals. Fhala was an exception.
Apparently banned from engaging with public session speakers, he bounced around the room, talking with them quietly after they returned to their seats.
And soon, antagonisms erupted as Fhala repeatedly objected to the approval of prior board minutes he believed were erroneous. Arch-rival Robinson kept trying to put Jack back in the box, succeeding with support from non-resident board members.
At the least, Fhala kept the status quo brigade off balance, asking for minor, reasonable changes challenging the inflated egos entrenched at RIOC.
It’s a long story with Albany interests outweighing the efforts of locals with real skin in the game, but Fhala’s efforts paid off handsomely. At least for now.
Mary Cunneen’s Promotion Stalled
When the board moved to make Cunneen’s position as Chief Operating Officer permanent, Fhala and fellow board member Lydia Tang interrupted with questions related to her relationships with board members.
It got chaotic as the Albany contingent tried shouting them down and David Kraut screamed through the monitor set up to allow his participation from a medical facility. But Fhala and Tang persisted, refusing to be silenced.
Both asked Cunneen about their efforts at reaching out to her and being ignored or pushed back.
For her part, the acting COO reacted at first with a Trump-like “I don’t recall,” before sliding over to a seemingly prearranged, “I defer to the chair.”
After Fhala read back her critical comments about him, revealed in the Haynes/Robinson lawsuit, even Visnauskas could not save her. With support from board member Howard Polivy – sighing heavily – the board was forced into discussing her promotion in an executive session.
No time was established, and Cunneen could still win the promotion. Yet, at least for now, insistence on bringing accountability to RIOC scored a small win. Given the history, such small wins loom very large.
Finally, Say Fare the Well to Akeem Jamal
Hired in August 2022 with dubious experience and RIOC work to match, Jamal is leaving RIOC. Haynes announced it during his President’s Report, offering a thin thank-you-for your-services nod.
Because Jamal arrived with personal skills that could have thrived at RIOC under better conditions, his departure is not without some disappointment. His attempts at establishing relationships within the community failed but not from any shortcomings on his part.
He tried, and we wish him the best of luck for the future.