Good Intentions, Worse Results

How Did the Youth Center RFP Go So Wrong?

David Stone
Conflict
Conflict
Credit: Maklay62 / CCO Public Domain

In a classic example of Murphy's Law - "Things will go wrong in any given situation, if you give them a chance." - a request for proposals intended to "do what's best for our kids" went kablooey in a way only Roosevelt Islanders can pull off. Collateral damage still rattled down Main Street on Friday evening.

"Sorry, Frank," is how RIOC President Susan Rosenthal pulled the curtain down on media turmoil at the end of this week.

Frank is Roosevelt Island activist and gadfly Farance.

It was a shame, too, because with sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s blessing the normally dreary end of February we had more than our share to cheer us up.

Rosenthal explained, "We are done with all of these baseless accusations and I am instructing our staff to cease responding. We have work to do. Feel free to accuse or institute any claim or proceeding you wish. We will proceed to do our job. We have no agenda other than to serve the community and follow all rules, regulations and guidelines.

"Have a great weekend," she concluded in her always upbeat and now sort of ironic style.

What Rosenthal calls "all of these baseless accusations" have been strewn around the community as if falling randomly off a garbage truck (if we had them), clogging up emails and discussion threads, becoming trapped in a digital echo chamber.

The mess was enough to obscure sight of what started all this and tangle emotions and personalities in ways that have more impact on who's scoring points than on getting what everyone says they want: a great, accessible youth center for Roosevelt Island's kids.

It should never have come to this. But it did, and here's how.

An Unhappy Breakup

Late in 2015, led by Adib Mansour who'd quit coaching soccer programs for the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, a disaffected group embarked on a toxic campaign to discredit and, hopefully, dislodge RIYP from management of the Youth Center as well as the Beacon Program at PS/IS 217.

Mansour was joined, among others, by another disgruntled former RIYP employee, Kim Massey, Scot Bobo, the well-liked owner of Main Street Sweets, still open then, and a newcomer, Hope Church pastor Dan Sadlier, who would emerge as a competitor for Youth Center management when he formed the Roosevelt Island Center for Community Development (RICCD).

Discontent among parents with the RIYP was widespread. One parent told me that she refused to let her son go to the Youth Center, although it's across the street from their home, because of lax supervision and adults taking over space that was supposed to be for children. The facility itself had fallen into abysmal physical shape, which added to the discontent.

What made a difference with Mansour's group is that they didn't stop with the usual community grumbling. Instead, they went public, sending a highly critical letter, suggesting not just sloppy management but implying fiscal improprieties as well, to City Council Member Ben Kallos. It was a take no prisoners tactic.

Not unexpectedly, RIYP Executive Director Charles DeFino, accused of irresponsibility and potentially criminal behavior, struck back in self-defense. In a recorded statement in the Roosevelt Islander blog, DeFino pointed his finger directly at Sadlier, a newcomer he believed was maneuvering behind the scenes with an intention of pushing RIYP aside in favor of RICCD.

Shots continued to be fired across opposing decks for another year before Rosenthal heard enough and, now in control of RIOC, did what any conscientious leader would do. For her, cleaning up the mess meant arranging money for much needed repairs and, finally, a request for proposals aimed at getting the best deal available for operating the Youth Center.

Although she's now fending off intense public accusations of organizational bid-rigging, Rosenthal probably didn't think she was sticking her arm in the fire when she became the first RIOC President to tackle longstanding frustrations over operations at 645 Main Street.

Activist by nature, she probably thought she was simply doing the right and responsible thing.

The RFP

A casual observer looking at the request for proposals issued on September 21st might easily conclude that it was rigged - in favor of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program.

There it was, first bullet point under Desired Experience and Qualifications...

"At least ten (10) years of experience operating, maintaining and managing space of at least 2,000 SF for not-for-profit (where applicable) recreation, enrichment and cultural organizations, including facilities management, scheduling, developing operating budgets, etc."

Additional desires were piled on in what could be interpreted as front loading the RFP in favor of RIYP. No other local group could come close to meeting them. Yet, RICCD, which is in its infancy, and Island Kids, an established and admired, but much smaller existing organization, went for it.

A lot is unclear as to why two groups that had to be aware of the "Desired Experience" conditions would put in the hard work, time and energy needed to complete the RFP. A clue might be in the term "Desired." Desire can be a breezy wish or a firm commitment. Bidders may have been assured that "Desired" was in a universe very distant from "Required."

For Island Kids, the leap was not so great that it wasn't worth a try at a long shot, given an organizational commitment to expansion and a willingness to retool experience and skill sets to meet a larger challenge.

On the other hand, RICCD had all the qualities of a Little Leaguer prancing into Yankee Stadium to face C. C. Sabathia, singing "I'm ready." And Sabathia recognized the upstart as the one that spit at him in the parking lot.

In their evaluations, RIOC's raters, on average, would rank RICCD's experience as roughly equal to RIYP's and slightly higher than that of Island Kids. Anyone expecting that not to raise eyebrows might need a salamander dropped down their shorts as a wake up call.

But why stop there when there's so much more to which you could object?

Reviewing the RFP Responses

Although head scratcher #1 hasn't been questioned as far as I know, for the Daily, it's about the team RIOC assigned to rate the proposals. Who thought the corporation's Vice President for Operations, Deputy Director of Public Safety and an Assistant General Counsel were just the right folks for evaluating the best bet for managing a youth program?

Nothing against a set of three otherwise fine people, but did they actually have insights into programs of this kind? Did they participate in drafting the RFP? Importantly, what instructions or training were they given on how to evaluate experience, fundraising, budgeting and staffing in a nonprofit community setting?

At the most recent RIOC Board Meeting, Rosenthal said that, with the new RFP being drafted, scoring would be taken out of the hands of RIOC employees. If I were one of them, I'd be relieved and also a little pissed off from having been put on the hot seat without asbestos lined pants.

Qualifications of the raters notwithstanding, a couple of serious discrepancies in the scoring rose like cold sores on a bad day as soon as Rick O'Conor published the results he received directly from RIOC in the Roosevelt Islander blog.

Discrepancy #1: A precondition listed in the RFP for advancing to the Interview phase of the evaluation was achieving a minimum average score of 60 among the evaluators on the first three phases. RICCD failed to do so but was allowed to proceed anyway. "RICCD got an average 59.7, which was rounded to 60," explained Lada Stasko, the Assistant General Council who served as one of the scorers.

Stasko, coincidentally, rated RICCD highest of all proposers, giving them a perfect 20 on the Interview for which she broke the written rules to let them in. She gave Island Kids a 16 but slammed RIYP with a dismal 11, scores that alone were enough to account for the eventual tie.

I asked Stasko, "Given that 59.7 is below the minimum score (for advancing to the Interview), can you explain why an exception was made for one candidate to “round up” to make them qualified? They did not make the cut off and rounding up was an artificial boost for a single bidder. Please explain."

Neither Stasko or anyone else from RIOC answered. This might have been enough to create major concern, but it was accompanied by something still more startling.

Discrepancy #2: The score sheet submitted for RIOC VP Shelton Haines was doctored after being filled out. Haines might have had second thoughts and changed it himself, but his original score of 15 for Island Kids's Interview was overwritten to make it 16. Without that change, there would not have been a tie. RIYP would have won outright.

None of this is to say that Farance is right in accusing RIOC of bid rigging, but his concerns are far from "baseless accusations."

These discrepancies require explaining, even if just to throw water on the flames Farance is unlikely to discontinue stirring.

Frank Farance and the Grand Conspiracy

Perhaps the worst community detritus left behind by the cancelled RFP, setting aside the enormous waste of time all three bidders committed to completing their proposals, are the community wounds it exposed and worsened.

In a scramble to make sense of accusations about bid-rigging at RIOC and power up requests for State level investigations, Farance dragged near relatives, next of kin and even women chatting in a store into the web of conspiracy. RIOC sins going back a generation to Jerry Blue spilled into discussion threads, and individuals not even involved in the bidding were tangentially accused of responsibility for "missing funds."

Because some of Farance's accusations barely rose above the level of gossip, akin to the vicious whispering campaigns mounted by RICCD, the Daily chose not to publish them, but Farance let 'em rip on the Roosevelt Islander blog and in the RI Parents' Network discussion threads. Worse still, the ethically challenged former Main Street WIRE printed them all, on the front page yet and in an article that claimed to be about cancelling the RFP but never quite made it deep into the particulars.

Island Kids and its Executive Director Nikki Leopold expended energy and time on developing a terrific, near winning proposal and were victimized by accusations spread like mud over a flooded street. They didn't deserve it, and as much as his concerns about RIOC's handling of bids were necessary, Farrance owes IK and Leopold a public apology.

RICCD? It's impossible to escape seeing Mansour, Massey and Sadlier as first in taking the low road, and it was very low, backing RIYP Executive Director Charles DeFino and his Board into a corner where they responded in kind. The tactic, along with the former Main Street WIRE's siding early on in support of RICCD, rallied Farance to the RIYP cause.

Talk about unintended consequences...

The result is a conflict that continued to burn as this week came to an end and will be certain to reignite when the new RFP is issued. With the exception of Island Kids, none of the parties involved did much of which they should be proud.

Conclusion: Did RIOC Rig the Bids?

Although RIOC was far too sloppy in handling such a sensitive piece of business and in spite of the glaring discrepancies listed above, the likelihood of RIOC's colluding to get a preferred result, as Farance accuses, is remote. Stasko's behavior and the altered scoring needs looking into, but getting Susan Rosenthal, General Council and Chief Compliance Officer Jaci Flug, Shelton Haines and Kevin Brown to step completely out of character to behave like The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight strains even the most flexible imagination.

Given that the RFP process at various points seems to tilt in favor of all three contestants argues against complicit behavior unless the goal was to confuse everyone, and who gets their kicks doing that?

Which brings us to the strongest argument against RIOC doing anything improper. That is, no one stood to gain from any of it. No one has a financial interest in the results, and not one of the bidders has the resources to line anyone's pockets with a bribe. Even if they did, the prize is hardly worth winning at such an expense.

Clear away the smoke, and funky as the process was, RIOC really did intend to improve the Youth Center and wanted to encourage as much participation as could be generated. As for the bidders, swept clean of some dangerously inflated egos and self-righteous posturing, you have three groups genuinely eager to work on behalf of the community's youth.

RIYP has many detractors, but why wouldn't they, after 40 years? They have their fans, too, Frank Farance being the loudest. Have they gone too far in alienating residents? RIOC appears not to think so and has committed to working with DeFino to maintain standards of excellence.

Rosenthal has said that, out of the failed RFP came learning that will help them develop a better one. We can only hope that's so. In the meantime, we have time to take a deep breath - and mend fences - before the next version comes out.