David Stone
Definition of Democracy
Definition of Democracy
NYPhotographic.com / Creative Commons 3 - CC BY-SA 3.0

Is the concept of "democracy" used and abused anywhere more than it is on Roosevelt Island?

"We're trying to bring some taste of democracy to the island," whined Matthew Katz, then President of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, in 2008. He also went Founding Fathers on us when he told the New York Sun that the State's current role in our community was "taxation without representation."

Washington, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson all spun in their graves simultaneously, the horror of historical ignorance the one thing they all ever agreed on.

Katz was the chosen candidate and tool of the Maple Tree Group, the elitist and ironically undemocratic group where the movement for alleged Roosevelt Island democracy campaign crystalized.

Some History: Democracy for Roosevelt Island

Most of us living here now arrived after the embattled RIOC administration of Jerome Blue, appointed by Governor George Pataki. Blue was so dreadful and hated, he virtually forced the formation of the Maple Tree Group as an instrument for overturning State rule or at least getting it more under local control.

While RIRA President Patrick Stewart waged a fierce battle for reform, the Maple Tree Group took a shot at independence, an idea with no chance for success, powered by the buzzword "democracy."

Pure democracy existed nowhere else in the developed world, but the Maple Tree Group whipped it around like a cudgel, a condition cruelly denied local residents. Never mind that the argument was malarky and, ultimately, a red herring, it sounded righteous and, with Jerome Blue posted as a tyrant, reasonable in response.

Not all MTG members were on board, but when coalesced, the core intent of their efforts was to consolidate control of Island management, not among all residents, but within a small group of Rivercross residents who believed their pioneering ownership of apartments entitled them to political power over the rest of the community.

Main Street WIRE editor and publisher Dick Lutz along with most his paid staff were MTG members, and the newspaper used its forced monopoly to push a philosophy that rewarded a few, politically and financially. 

There were gains.

Jerome Blue was ousted. A succession of Governors first acceded to allow local residents to vote to nominate a RIOC Board of mostly Roosevelt Islanders. But losses too.

The resident dominated board engineered the firing of the highly capable President Steve Shane, a move made much worse by the imminent appointment of Leslie Torres, and established the retail corridor deal with Hudson that has left much of the spaces on Main Street vacant and contributed to the shuttering of popular eateries, Trellis and Main Street Sweets.

Torres administration also brought a level of corruption and police abuse unthinkable under any other manager and, it seems, led to Governor Cuomo's apparent wariness about the benefits of Roosevelt Island home rule.

What didn't get said clearly enough, mainly because the Maple Tree Group controlled Main Street WIRE did not report it, is that Shane's ouster enabled Rivercross apartment owners, including several on the RIOC Board and much of the WIRE's staff, to earn windfall profits from privatization. With Shane gone, incoming President Torres opened the floodgates and money flooded into Rivercross.

A fair consideration of "increasing democracy" on Roosevelt Island must include the collection of empty storefronts on Main Street and the windfall profits accumulated by Rivercross residents, which activist Frank Farance argues was taken ultimately at the expense of other Island residents.

The Beat Goes On

When the WIRE, in one of the last issues overseen by Dick Lutz, published a bogus account of resident voting results from nominations for the RIOC Board, I shuddered.

"During the short period when Islanders were allowed to nominate residents to serve on the RIOC Board, there was a brief outbreak of democracy. While general elections, including midterms, turn out 39% to 57% nationally, those RIOC Board elections had a turnout of about 85%," wrote Dana Agmon in September, 2016.

In truth, only 1,718 ballots were cast in 2008, accounting for less than 20% of eligible residents.

This reinforced my conclusion, apologies to Al Franken, that the easiest job in the world is Main Street WIRE fact checker.

Soon, Maple Tree Group Member and Common Councilor Joyce Short rolled out plans for yet another RIOC Board nominating election. While her accompanying editorial and an article by Brian Warsing in the WIRE implied otherwise, there was no agreement with anyone, from the Governor to RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, that the elections would be anything more than an attack on current Board members who no longer were dominated by nor bowed down to the Maple Tree Group.

Democracy for Real

So, let's get down to it. What's the truth about democracy along Main Street on Roosevelt Island?

First, let's note that "democracy" and "home rule" and whatever other buzzwords the Maple Tree Group pushed, they never really got specific about what they hoped to accomplish, and that gave heft to accusations of profiteering as their primary motive.

We already have significant benefits over other New Yorkers as a result of RIOC's presence, which we'll get to later; so what was it MTG and the Main Street WIRE wanted changed, specifically?

Seek and you shall not find.

Democratic Layers

In a sharp difference from other municipalities, New York City has a system of Community Boards designed to enhance grassroots democracy. According to Community Board 8, which includes Roosevelt Island...

"Fifty-nine community boards citywide make recommendations to the Borough President, City Council, Mayor and various city and state agencies regarding land use, zoning and budgetary matters affecting their district. The Boards also help coordinate the delivery of municipal services, recommend permit processing for street fairs and block parties, handle local complaints, and provide information for the community."

On the local board, we are currently represented by Ellen Polivy, Jeffry Escobar, Sharon Pope and Lynne Strong-Shinozaki.

Below the level of Mayor Bill de Blasio, we elect and are represented by Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Member Ben Kallos. On the State level, we are represented in the Assembly by Rebecca Seawright and in the Senate by José Serrano Jr. along with our democratically elected Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Federally, we have popularly elected Senators Kristen Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

We have, in reality, more democracy than nearly any other American town or City.

The RIOC Effect

What seems to bug some local residents, although we have no reason to believe it's a majority, is the Governor's delegating responsibility for much of the Island's governance to RIOC, a public benefit corporation. The State is responsible for Roosevelt Island by virtue of an agreement with the City aimed at developing a unique community as envisioned four decades ago.

Benefits to the community are substantial, from free movies offered all summer to a dedicated public safety department that's made ours the safest place to live in New York City.

Neighborhoods all over the five boroughs envy our Island-wide transportation system that residents ride to and from home. For Free.

RIOC also offers a giant boost to the community through Public Purpose Funds, money set aside voluntarily out of their annual budget to benefit local nonprofits. While there are accountability controls necessary when you give away public funds, the primary requirement to be awarded grants is that you do good and honest community building work.

It's true that we, as residents, don't get to directly elect RIOC Board Members or other officers, but there is, by the same token, no convincing argument that that is a negative. After all, Board Members nominated by popular vote gave us Leslie Torres, didn't they? And the Main Street retail master lease?

But there's one more thing that adds democratic spice to RIOC's administration. With the exception of Leslie Torres's in her worst days, each RIOC President since Herb Berman has been accessible. You aren't going to talk to the mayor about anything, but Susan Rosenthal has an open door policy and will be happy to chat on Main Street, where you can often find her walking between meetings.

What alternatives are the Maple Tree Group, the Common Council and Joyce Short hoping to bring us as improvements...?

Twenty years of barking about "democracy" has never produced a specific plan or even part of a plan for making any segment of our community better.

We know see that they won't shut up, but we still don't have to listen.