Editorial

To Save the Common Council, Escobar and Short Must Go

Updated 13 weeks ago David Stone
Who Will Lead the Common Council Back to Respectability?
Who Will Lead the Common Council Back to Respectability?
CCO Public Domain / Pixabay

If you needed more evidence showing that the Common Council of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association has fallen out touch with our neighborhoods, lurching instead from one personal agenda to another as if drunk on them, the ill-advised, mismanaged and corrupt voting campaign this week offered it in abundance.

RIRA’s Leaderless Common Council

Alarms should have gone off in the heads of Roosevelt Island’s community leaders when recent Common Council elections failed before getting out of the gate in November. All but one building failed to attract enough candidates to make voting competitive. Several hadn’t enough even to fill all their seats.

A candidates night was cancelled for lack of competition. The Council’s elected offices, President and Vice President, were awarded by default because only a single person offered to run for each.

Overall, with few exceptions, anyone nominated won automatically. Island House was the single exception.

The roots of this lack of support from and connection with residents runs deep over the years. But we have no intention of performing that autopsy here. Instead, we want to declare the Common Council dead and put out a call for a reincarnated version worthy of the community it hopes to serve.

Why Jeff Escobar Must Step Down as President 

“The buck stops here” is no less relevant for local politics as it is for national. The demise of the Common Council as a constructive force accelerated during Escobar’s three terms. Most often, he appears to consistently be in the thrall of the loudest voice in the room, regardless of content, instead of setting a standard for fairness or effective action himself.

During the most recent general election, not only were there far too few residents interested in participating, only a tiny number, less than 15% of those eligible chose to vote in RIRA balloting, even though a majority had no choice but to pass their voting booths while exercising their rights in an important national election.

Instead of soul searching about what went wrong and how things might be righted, Escobar declared the results a landmark success. Clueless, deluded or dishonest, take your pick, but clearheaded and objective is not among the possibilities.

Like Bob Dylan’s heroine in Love Minus Zero / No Limit, maturity includes understanding “There’s no success like failure.” If you can’t recognize failure, you can’t grow from it.

After the embarrassing debacle of last year’s endlessly promoted, haplessly constructed and interminable SURVEY campaign, Escobar bungled consideration of Public Purpose Fund recommendations, probably the most important activity RIRA is charged with, by allowing improper influence from Council Members with vested interests to weight deliberations.

The Common Council has no active mechanism for reining in the conduct of its executive officers, and Escobar simply dismissed complaints without explanation. 

As President, Escobar continued to erode trust in the Common Council by standing by while the Government Relations Committee, led by Joyce Short, forced islandwide voting to nominate RIOC Board Members when no one except Short and possibly Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, who Short claims as her sponsor, had any interest. 

Moreover, he stood by without objecting as Short conducted an ethics challenged campaign to embarrass sitting Board Members while persistently misleading residents about the details and consequences of such a vote.

Escobar demonstrates an inability to lead or to step in when actions are taken that undermine the Common Council as a community organization, leading it to become the empty shell formed from personal agendas it is today. Nothing suggests that he has the skills or authority to take the Council in a better direction. He needs to go before more damage is done.

Force Joyce Short Off the Common Council

Something that’s been said about Joyce Short that rings true is that she will never accept blame or admit  a mistake. Another truth is that she will never leave the Common Council voluntarily. Council Members committed to making the organization successful ought to show her the door, whether she agrees or not. Here’s why.

You can forget about prior actions by Short that might raise eyebrows. Her behavior in forcing the Common Council to underwrite the RIOC nominations voting and carrying through with them, even after they were shown to be useless, is enough, all by itself.

A damning factor that, surprisingly, even Frank Farance failed to cite in attacking Short’s campaign is her claim that State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright was the actual force behind her campaign. Short and the Council were expected to do Seawright’s bidding. Whether true or not, the flaw is fatal. If Seawright ordered the elections, with Short as her agent, the Council is diminished as a stalking horse for a nonresident’s political agenda. If she didn’t, the Council was mislead.

There is no way to see this as anything but a negative for Short, the Council and Seawright. The idea of a nonresident politician meddling in Roosevelt Island’s local affairs is repugnant and should be disavowed.

Short’s role in this business grew worse as she continued to push her agenda even as it became clear to objective observers that there was no sense in going forward, actions that further suggest Seawright’s control.

RIOC disavowed interest in or support of the nominating elections. When RIOC President Susan Rosenthal rejected Short’s request to support her efforts by helping with posters, Short turned on her, reinforcing her campaign with damaging quotes Rosenthal says are false.

Although Short originally announced that all seven RIOC Board seats were up for grabs, a dearth of willing candidates forced her to rationalize that, in actual practice, all seven need not be replaced at once. She wrote that it was necessary to advise Governor Cuomo about community preferences, a claim that lacked resonance with any astute politician aware of RIRA’s inability to fill all of its own seats. How were they supposed to fill RIOC’s? Certainly, the Governor’s team has other resources for finding appropriate appointees.

Why would he be influenced by a feeble organization that works to undermine, through innuendo and falsehoods, those he’s already appointed?

Still, with only five candidates, Short pushed ahead, hosting a Candidates Night at the Senior Center that drew slightly more audience members than candidates.

While, up to this point, Short’s activities in pursing this vote came off as sort of clownish, even as they undermined the Common Council’s integrity, what came next was baffling, inappropriate and undertaken with disregard for proper election procedure and for the rights of others she dragged into the fray.

What Short did, after nominations were long closed and candidates had opportunities to appeal to residents, was add two names to the ballots without their consent.

Both David Kraut and Howard Polivy, already RIOC Board Members, expressed surprise at seeing their names on the ballots. The ballots themselves were made worse with overt politicking. Next to each of seven names on the ballot, the designation of “New” or “Current” was added. No explanation was offered as voting took place.

Short did not include other sitting Board Members, Margie Smith and Fay Christian, also without explanation. Smith, a Seawright supporter, publicly backed Short’s initiative, but neither she nor Christian answered when asked to comment on who was included and who wasn't on the ballot and whether it was appropriate.

Ballot fraud as overt as this should immediately qualify as sufficient for Short’s dismissal from the Common Council, assuming enough Members are willing to stand up in the face of Short’s inevitable wrath.

Manipulated ballots that show deliberate indifference to the rights of those involved were complimented by misleading, handmade signs identifying voting as “RIOC,” without reference to the actual sponsor, RIRA’s Common Council.

Voting, with ballots filled out at tables in building lobbies, was conducted without regard for secrecy. At Island House, Short and one of her candidates actually stood by as observers, the candidate actually accosting at least one resident who chose to pass without stopping.

Send Short and Seawright a message by removing her from the Council. The case is clear, the damage to the Common Council’s standing in the community extensive.

Addendum

Late yesterday, in an email thread that originated with Frank Farance and included elected and RIOC officials as well as all local media, Short fired off a lengthy explanation for her behavior that should have made Seawright’s, Kallos’s and Serrano’s hair stand on end, assuming they have any regard for the importance of impartial, fair voting. 

Of course, Short blamed Frank Farance in the grand tradition of shooting the messenger. And, she took the trouble of deleting addresses for me and Roosevelt Islander blog editor Rick O’Conor. No surprise, she left the address for the Main Street WIRE’s editor in place.

Today, on a visit to the Senior Center, I witnessed Short and two volunteers, both of whom I know, counting the ballots. No third party observed the counts in a vote already widely regarded as fraudulent. It was just Joyce Short running the show, according to her own rules, as she has from the beginning.

 

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