Still divisive, still dishonest, after all these years

Is the Main Street WIRE's RIOC Spitball Fiction?

Updated 36 weeks ago David Stone
Maple Trees Across the U.S. Have Asked to Take Their Name Back
Maple Trees Across the U.S. Have Asked to Take Their Name Back
Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

We’re lucky Andrew Cuomo threw the brakes on soon enough to block the Maple Tree Group’s ultimate goal of taking over the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp., but a misleading timeline in this week’s Main Street WIRE is like a fractured fairy tale — except they aren’t joking.

Fairy Tale Timeline

In “news analysis” in the September 10, 2016, issue of the Main Street WIRE, Dana Agmon follows Maple Tree Group founding member Linda Heimer’s cartoonish, self-justifying timeline, adding snarky comments to spice the crafted version of reality.

The headline itself is enough to dizzy anyone who cares about serious journalism: Timeline: Two Decades Have Passed in the Battle… …for a Democratic Voice in Island Governance… But…

Really, how often do you get a chance to see three ellipses in a single sentence, let alone a headline? Somebody call Guinness. 

A friend who remains nameless (because I haven’t found time to ask his permission to do otherwise) called the WIRE, the “RIRA Maple Tree Group Review,” and Heimer is so tied to both that she once yelled at Rick O’Conor, founder of the Roosevelt Islander blog, in a Main Street confrontation, because he had the nerve to start up an online competitor.

Freedom of the press doesn’t fit the Maple Tree Group’s scheme of how things ought to be.

O’Conor, fortunately, carried on, creating a timely information source for local residents that remains useful today.

Let The Rant Begin

The grid starts appropriately enough with the arrival of Jerome Blue, easily the worst President ever appointed to lead RIOC. His sins were multiple, but singling out Nero without as fully acknowledging a succeeding group of better Caesars is more misleading than standard journalistic practice allows.

Agmon takes time to slap Rob Ryan, Steve Shane and Leslie Torres with innuendo that’s little more than uncontested gossip, but fails to recognize the outstanding management of Shane and Charlene Indelicato nor the earlier contributions of the equally excellent Jean Lerman, the first RIOC President I worked with and probably the most transparent.

Both Shane and Indelicato were hired in a majority vote by the resident dominated RIOC board and arrived here carrying satchels of invaluable experience.

Taking it a step farther, while the grid notes that David Kraut and Ron Vass, Island residents, had already been appointed to the RIOC board, it fails to mention that both appointments recognized their popularity among residents, not their political connections.

More offensive, to me personally and to truth in general, is that neither Heimer nor Agmon credits the late Patrick Stewart with more than just being there.

Stewart, as RIRA President, battled Blue to a draw, helping force his ouster and, even so, was nominated to the RIOC board, was approved and served faithfully. He contributed generously, but he is invisible in the WIRE’s make-believe.

About the Maple Tree Group

Not surprisingly, the Maple Tree Group came together in reaction to Blue’s alienating tenure at RIOC. David Bauer, a gentlemanly, philosophical leader formed it, mostly from his  acquaintances in Rivercross.

MTG’s ultimate failure may be attributable to the their unwillingness or inability to reach out to the larger Island community, a weakness with which it eventually infected the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, after a takeover in 2000.

Powered by high-minded ideals about self-governance, MTG never gained enough momentum to do much worse than wreck RIRA, although they were able to use that community platform to hoodwink elected representatives Pete Grannis and Olga Mendez into transporting their designs all the way north to Albany.

Without competition, the Maple Tree Group, supported by slanted coverage from Main Street WIRE editor Dick Lutz, himself an MTG member, sold the idea that the RIRA Common Council was the legitimate voice of Roosevelt Island residents, which it never was and is even less so now.

RIRA has been unable to draw much more than 15% of eligible residents to their voting booths, a paltry number, and under the Maple Tree Group’s control, that tiny level of support fell even farther, to around 11% on its best day.

The reasons are obvious when you look at voting results. Outside the core WIRE buildings, RIRA has been unable to generate enough interest to fill the common council seats for even a single complex. Southtown, Manhattan Park and the Octagon are severely underrepresented, their voices neither valued nor heard. 

Taking Over the Residents Association 

In 2000, genial, easy to like Matthew Katz won election as President of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association. Some cried “Foul!” But the WIRE shrugged it off.

With good reason. The WIRE profited, politically and financially.

Although most Islanders were as indifferent as they are now, many who weren’t accused Katz, a Maple Tree Group member, in coalition with the newspaper, of cheating by making a mockery of bylaws limiting campaign spending.

Trying to keep a focus on issues among candidates, RIRA set a spending limit of $250 for each candidate. Every candidate before Katz honored it.

But a big ad in the WIRE plus posters along Main Street took the Katz campaign far past that figure in making sure residents recognized the name of the man the Maple Tree Group wanted in office.

No cheating was involved, the WIRE explained, because Katz himself did not pay for the promotions. His supporters did. He was clean.

Katz later compounded this act by retaining his wife on the Common Council after she moved out of the building for which she’d been elected to serve.

One more Maple Tree Group member kept in the house.

Disregard for rules opened the door for RIRA’s commitment to promoting the MTG’s agenda, an agenda drawn up by a small cluster of Rivercross elites who ignored expanding resident communities.

A gifted politician, Katz built strong relationships with local elected representatives, selling the idea that RIRA represented all Islanders equally, although even a casual look at the facts told a different story.

The WIRE, an unrestrained MTG mouthpiece, joined in, repeating the message and massaging electeds who were treated to glowing coverage. The news monopoly, with print editions delivered to every resident, whether they wanted them or not, kept objections tamped down.

But the damage was done, and RIRA would not be an effective organization for anything but the MTG agenda again.

About That Agenda

Suffering under the mangled management of Jerry Blue, the founding members of MTG had a single idea to promote. They believed Roosevelt Island’s residents should, by election, run the community, not RIOC with its motley crew of political patronage appointees.

The trouble was, when you opened the kimono you didn’t find anything recognizable, just high sounding ideals and a lot of bluster about democracy.

What would be the advantage to kicking out dumb in favor of potentially even dumber?

Success of a kind came quickly for activists as Governor Pataki removed Jerry Blue, apparently in response to protests. Instead of slacking thirst for change, the move juiced the volume.

Another big win landed with short term Governor Eliot Spitzer’s appointment of Steve Shane to manage RIOC and their joint support for setting aside the majority of board seats for local residents.

As a result, the RIOC board, charged with the overseeing management of the corporation, has since 2008 held a resident majority.

And the RIRA/MTG combo has been in an increasing snit because they have been unable to control the board, try though they might. 

Let’s Be Honest About the RIOC Board

With the exceptions of David Kraut and the late Patrick Stewart, every resident board member earned the right to membership through a public vote. And even Kraut and Stewart were appointed after serving as elected Presidents of RIRA.

Agmon’s claim that “Democracy is dead in the waters of the East River” fails as a whiny protest when you consider that all current resident board members, with the exception Kraut, won their votes while Barrack Obama was first running for President, as does the claim, “Their terms have thus extended beyond the boundaries of democracy.”

This stock Main Street WIRE hogwash originated with editor and MTG founding member Dick Lutz.

Agmon goes on to say that board members are “…subject to instant dismissal should they displease the governor…” without citing a single instance where that happened.

Board members are likened to “Damocles,” subject of a Roman fable in which a sycophant flatters his way into Dionysius’s inner circle, but then is shown how perilous positions of power can be.

Other elements to the ancient story make it ridiculous in this context, but I’ll make it simple. Anyone who believes the longest serving board member, David Kraut, got there by being an obsequious flatterer or fears speaking his mind because it might end his term has never spent five minutes with the man.

Kraut is there because he earned it through hard work and intelligence, and he does not need to kiss anyone’s butt to stay there.

And neither does Dr. Katherine Grimm, a popular local figure, or Mike Shinozaki, a Microsoft executive who shares a passion for service with his wife Lynne, or Margie Smith, successful in business and an outspoken critic of policies of which she disapproves.

I could go on, but you get the idea. RIOC board members do not serve because they flattered some political bigwig. Are they flawless? Hardly. Do they do what they personally believe is best for the community? If you can find an instance where they did anything else, let’s hear about it. I don’t have one.

(Activist Frank Farance has accused some board members of profiteering improperly in moves made concerning Rivercross, but that has not been proved.)

RIOC board members dedicate long hours to their duties, and they do it without compensation, and most have been publicly flogged by the WIRE, their reputations smeared with little effort wasted on balance.

One last note on the board members: looked at objectively and in whole, Howard Polivy, Fay Christian, Katherine Grimm, Margie Smith, David Kraut and Michael Shinozaki are about as good as it gets for smartly representing the broadest spectrum of Roosevelt Island interests. You can read their impressive bios by clicking here. 

Conclusion

I can’t guess what Andrew Cuomo’s values are in overseeing management of Roosevelt Island nor what his next moves will be. Although I am not satisfied with RIOC’s recent actions — or lack thereof — in leaving Manhattan Park residents high and dry instead of enforcing their own ground lease, there is more than a single issue involved.

And difficult as it is, I have to set aside personal disappointment to look objectively at what we have with RIOC.

While the Maple Tree Group failed at their takeover attempt, we have many successes with RIOC, including a couple of big ones we’d go without if we lived elsewhere.

First, led by Jack McManus, Public Safety is a unique entity largely responsible for one of the most crime free communities in one of Americas most crime free big cities. It’s a remarkable achievement often overlooked.

Second, those board members the WIRE recently slandered create a $100,000 space in the annual budget for money to be spent solely for community organizations supporting unmet community needs. Dispersal of “public purpose funds” is determined in large part by the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, which follows guidelines established by the board. Some Island organizations could not survive without the help.

Important note: to receive funding, organizations are not asked to pledge political allegiance to RIOC or state government. All they must do is good work.

Roosevelt Island’s management by RIOC is not perfect, but that’s only of concern for those certain that a locally elected body would be. An objective analysis may show that we’ve done damn well under this system.

Even raising the specter of Jerry Blues to come, the future with RIOC, as is, looks brighter than what we’ve come to expect from our perpetually feuding, democratically elected federal and state governments. 

And I’ll close by adding that we’re certainly better off than we’d have been if the Maple Tree Group had succeeded, putting its team of local elites in charge of all of us.

Its timeline be damned.

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