Lessons Not Learned

Questions About Murkier Public Purpose Funding Gets Silence From RIRA

Peter McCarthy
PPF Grants help RIVAA add graceful touches of art at Motorgate. Other benefits of the funds are less visible.
PPF Grants help RIVAA add graceful touches of art at Motorgate. Other benefits of the funds are less visible.
© Deborah Julian / Roosevelt Island Daily

Roosevelt Islanders expect protective secrecy to shroud RIOC, but as fresh questions come up about Public Purpose Funds, the disease may have infected the Residents Association, of which we all are part but know less and less about. What the heck's going on?

RIRA'S Growing Commitment To Not Telling Residents What They Are Up To

Activist Frank Farance traces RIRA's plunge toward secrecy to the administration of Matthew Katz, a president that Farance says preferred cutting deals behind closed doors to public negotiation or discussion. Whatever Katz's flaws might have been, recent RIRA Common Councils, led by Jeff Escobar, are worthy challengers in the war against communicating openly with residents.

Secrecy runs contrary to everything the Common Council is supposed to do, that is, represent residents, not simply the parochial interests of its members, the majority of them seated, not through voting, but virtually by self-appointment.

Support for and interest in the Common Council runs so low that, out of about 10,000 eligible residents, only 42 volunteered to put their names up for a vote in last week's election. There are 44 elective positions available. Both executive offices, president and vice president, were won unopposed.

Which brings us to the another disappointing failure to speak up: For the first time, Residents Association leaders chose not to disclose voting totals, just the names of those elected, mostly without competition.

In case you're wondering, yes, they were asked, but consistent with recent history, no one answered.

Why? You're welcome to guess. We don't know.

A Possible Explanation or More of the Same?

But even before the new shorthanded Common Council could be seated, the outgoing representatives pulled off a magical disappearing act of their own.

They met to vote on recommendations from their Public Purpose Funds Committee about what groups should get grants, this year, and how much.

Questions were raised about glaring conflicts of interest. For example, the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, headed by Common Council members, including its Vice President, applied for and won a hefty recommendation by a committee it helped form. And Vice President Sherie Helstien, RISA's secretary, was then allowed, over protests, to participate in allocation discussions.

Common Council President Jeffrey Escobar buried objections by invoking Roberts Rules of Order, and incoming Vice President Lynne Strong-Shinozaki, herself saddled with multiple conflicts of interest, moved to cut off debate before other members were able to get their questions answered.

Unhappy Common Council members complain that they were required to vote on the package without knowing how the numbers were arrived at or how the money would be spent.

RIOC Comments and More Questions

Late last week, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal said that her organization had not received RIRA's recommendations yet and, as a consequence, the Board of Directors, which has final say on allocations, hadn't begun its review.

Rosenthal agreed to meet with Farance to listen to objections about whether the Common Council acted properly.

In the meantime, research has raised fresh questions about RISA's application for funds. The Daily has written that, because of its glaring conflict of interest with the PPF Committee, RISA should not have been allowed to apply, let alone earn a recommended grant far in excess of most other applicants.

We looked at RISA's From 990 tax exempt filings for the last five years. Form 990 is how certified 501(3)(c) nonprofit entities report their income to the IRS. In each year, RISA based its status on being a "governmental unit," that is, operator of the Senior Center.

We are not tax lawyers or accountants, but this suggests that RISA was disqualified as a 501(3)(c) entity when its contract to run the Senior Center was severed in June of this year. That would, according to RIOC's public documents, make RISA ineligible for PPF grants.

RISA President Barbara Parker has been asked, by email, to explain what steps RISA has taken to validate or renew its 501(3)(c) certification, but she has not responded.

By email, we also asked Common Council Member Dave Evans, who chaired the PPF Committee, and Council President Jeffrey Escobar, what actions they took, if any, to insure that the applicants they reviewed were qualified for grants, according to RIOC's rules.

Neither replied.

At least RIOC's Rosenthal seems ready to consider concerns with some degree of transparency. A gust of fresh air may help shine light on the inner workings of both RIOC and RIRA, much to the benefit of residents.

Who knows? Opening up to residents they are pledged to represent might get RIRA off its back and involved as a vital part of the community again.

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