When the Smoke Clears

What Went Wrong? A Mess Known as the Youth Center RFP

Updated 35 weeks ago David Stone
When Will We Get It Right?
When Will We Get It Right?
Images courtesy of Pixabay / CCO Public Domain

Looked at objectively, there was nothing inherently wrong with RIOC's Request for Proposals for managing Roosevelt Island's youth programs, but this is Roosevelt Island, a tightly wound community that, lacking strong, central leadership, routinely spins conflict off into non-cooperating power clusters.

In this virtual small town tucked in a big city wrinkle that likes to bask in sunny claims about community, Roosevelt Island doesn't function very well as a unit. Organizations founded for political activism, RIRA's Common Council, the Community Coalition, fail the inclusiveness test while spinning their wheels behind weak leadership. Our socially beneficial nonprofits are only beginning to catalyze potential points of cooperation.

Initiatives that should seal the community with ideas, blending them into mutual solutions, break down into bickering and failure.

RIOC's attempt to rethink the Youth Center is the latest example.

Nothing was accomplished. Relationships were damaged as residents scrambled to take sides.

Why the RFP in the First Place?

RIOC CEO Susan Rosenthal makes clear her passion for tackling neglected infrastructure. She's gone after much needed upgrades at Blackwell House, Sportspark and the Youth Center, just in her first year.

Admired for her openness in listening to resident concerns, Rosenthal undoubtedly heard complaints along with compliments about Youth Center operations, and given the Roosevelt Island Youth Program's nearly forty year tenure, it made sense to take a broader look there, in conjunction with the physical rebuild, and get a handle on other management options.

Publicly, anyway, RIOC has offered no criticism of RIYP or its leadership and welcomed them to submit a competitive proposal.

Resentment sparked quickly.

As early as last April, RIYP Executive Director Charles DeFino went nn the attack in the Roosevelt Islander blog, accusing the newly formed Roosevelt Island Center of Community Development, its leaders Dan Sadler and Kim Massey (a former RIYP manager) of working to undermine his program. In an offhand comment to me, DeFino also accused "Bluebeard," an apparent reference to Adib Mansour, who'd recently quit managing soccer operations for the Youth Program, of complicity.

While a number of parents, including some who grew up here and took part in Youth Center activities, are so disenchanted with the current environment and programs that they don't allow their children to participate, others are loyal supporters. RIOC seems to have spent little time exploring what works well at the Youth Center or in figuring out where the complaints were coming from and why.

They seemed to think that throwing all the ingredients of happiness, dissatisfaction and points in-between to the winds would result in a perfectly resolved landing.

The result: a Request for Proposals seen by many as an extension of attacks on RIYP and an indirect attempt to destroy DeFino's group.

Why the RFP Failed

During more than fifteen years of dealing with millions of dollars in government contracts and contributing to a rewrite of parts of the State Finance Law, I learned that ambiguity flavors the terms and conditions and that gray areas abound. A high-ranking State purchasing executive I worked with compared putting laws together to making sausages, the art of cobbling together whatever ingredients were at hand and wrapping them tight in the same skin. 

Compromises and loopholes exist for a reason. No two purchasing decisions are alike, and the bigger they are, the organically dissimilar they become. Buyers and contract officers need room to operate in getting the best deal done.

With that in mind, the Youth Center RFP seemed designed, however inadvertently, to include huge potential fudge factors that would allow RIOC a liberal range of options in arriving at a decision. The RFP listed explicit details about what the eventual winner should bring to the table in upgrading Youth Center programs, but it set the bar very low by deftly using the word "preferred" rather than "required."

RIOC seemed to whip the door wide open for competition, maybe as a wakeup call to RIYP, maybe to get rid of them by welcoming far less experienced competitors as equals. Maybe they simply wanted to use wild cards to see what creativity might break the surface.

What we all got was an irreconcilable mess that fractured community relations and tainted future efforts to move forward with ineradicable suspicion.

What RIOC must have known is, had they made the qualifications for bidders requirements, not preferences, no group other than RIYP would make the cut. No other group comes close to the proposed longevity, extent of operations or fundraising.

RIOC Throws In the Towel

After investing months in developing an RFP for Youth Center program management, collecting proposals that took bidders many hours to complete and, then, using three people to review and score the proposals, RIOC threw it all away in late January after protests and, ultimately, crossfire recriminations broke out.

What stirred anger was an announcement by RIOC that their review had resulted in a tie score, without details. That was like putting a match to gunpowder and walking away.

"This review resulted in a tie score between two of the applicants," said Rosenthal.

"This condition is impossible, given the candidates' level of experience," fired back Island activist and staunch RIYP supporter Frank Farance.

Incensed, DeFino fired off a letter attacking the results and echoing Farance's challenges about competing qualifications.

Lost in the chaotic blow up was that, because RIOC never disclosed its scoring system and how it resulted in a tie, suspicion and mistrust was encouraged to run rampant. No official announcement even identified the tied finalists or which of the three were eliminated.

"The two (unidentified) tied bidders’ applications were going to be submitted to a new panel of evaluators for review," explained Rosenthal as part of her announcement that the whole thing had been scrapped.

"Since that time," she continued, "members of the Roosevelt Island community have submitted numerous communications to RIOC generally questioning the legitimacy of the review that resulted in a tie. Some communications included disparaging remarks about bidders. All such communications, attempting to influence the RIOC review committee while the RFP is pending, are inappropriate and are prohibited by State Finance Law. These communications, among other things, caused RIOC to withdraw the RFP."

"..among other things..." comes off as a red herring, meant to leave a gap to be filled in later, as needed.

And as Farance was quick to point out, if communications "attempting to influence the RIOC review committee" are prohibited by law, why didn't it apply to the thousands of Cornell alumni who called city offices to root for their school's tech campus bid? The fact is that it is not illegal, except in some instances for bidders.

Asked whether one of the bidders actually violated the law or to otherwise clarify Rosenthal's statement, RIOC legal counsel Jaci Flug answered, "At this time there is nothing more to say. RIOC has withdrawn the RFP and the statement that was issued speaks to why it was withdrawn."

Farance offered a counter opinion. The RFP was abruptly discarded, he insists, because he called out what he claims is "bid rigging" on RIOC's part in trying to engineer a preferred result. He as called for a State investigation.

Flames Out of Control

Unfortunately, RIOC's attempt to bury an RFP gone very wrong coupled with Farance's fierce determination to keep the pallbearers from reaching the graveyard unscathed created a flourish of unnecessary damages.

Eager to buttress his claims of improper behavior, Farance went off on extended and ill-advised rants about alleged corruption going back decades, burning not just RIOC but other parties the community would consider incapable of wrongdoing.

It was unnecessary overreach blown out of proportion by Farance's drilling it into the RI Parents' Network communication thread and posting extensive, unsupported allegations on the Roosevelt Islander blog.

The former Main Street WIRE made matters worse, publishing accusations that were little more than gossip as if they were substantial on the front page. The article, written by editor Briana Warsing, claimed to be about the RFP but barely covered those details while spreading malicious content equivalent to fake news on the internet.

The result, now that tempers have cooled, at least until a new, promised RFP comes into play, is that three organizations that have contributed positively to the Roosevelt Island community have seen their reputations damaged. RIYP, proud of its decades of service to Islanders, has been forced to defend itself against charges that are nebulous at best; Island Kids's intention to grow a respected set of programs in serving an extended base hunkered down to defend itself simply for trying; and RIOC allowed an opaqueness that has long plagued them to seed community suspicions again, just when Rosenthal seemed to be making headway in winning residents' trust.

Conclusion

It may not be the conventional wisdom and Farance's overreaching argues against it, but the simplest way to resolve the conflict is to resurrect the snuffed RFP and proceed to a conclusion while making a full disclosure effort to explain what RIOC's goals were in issuing it and why they mattered.

Any other action reaffirms suspicions about bad intentions. If this RFP was honorably intended to upgrade Youth Center programs, with or without a new operator, there is no legitimate reason to let it die.

More likely, however, is a new, revised RFP that will be so cautious it smothers innovation or doesn't do enough to push improvements. And there's a strong possibility that RIOC will simply turn away from conflict and carry on as they have for decades, working with the Youth Program while, at the same time, upgrading a poorly maintained facility.

The damage is done, and there is no way to see any gains from it.

Without serious leadership stepping out, Roosevelt Island's recent history of small skirmishes continues without fostering meaningful improvements.