RIRA Common Council Leadership Fails To Rise To the Occasion Again

Failed, Flawed, "Immoral" RIOC Nominating Results Approved Anyway

Updated 19 weeks ago David Stone
The Original Logo for the RIOC Board Nominating Elections
The Original Logo for the RIOC Board Nominating Elections
Created and posted by the Common Council's Government Relations Committee

 

"Please let me know by the Close of Business today whether you consent or object," Common Council President Jeffrey Escobar wrote RIOC Board Members David Kraut and Howard Polivy, giving them six hours tops to meet his demands. It nearly closes the sorry mess no one had the spine to fix or flush.

From his desk as a practicing attorney at the Manhattan Law Firm of Chadbourne & Parke, Escobar wrapped up his cold, perfunctory message to Kraut and Polivy, "Please let me know by the Close of Business today whether you consent or object to the inclusion of your name as set forth below in the proposed transmittal forwarding the list of nominees to the electeds as referenced forth above. If I do not hear from you, such non-response will be construed as your non-consenting to the inclusion of your name and will be omitted from the transmission to the electeds."

What?

Such was the crippled state of an bungled initiative rammed through by Government Relations Committee Chair Joyce Short. The sadly funny fact of it was that, for all practical purposes, no one with meaningful authority gives much of a damn about it, and the few who do should be ashamed of being associated with what's effectively an unethical assault on representative democracy.

"Insofar as it has been noted that both of your names were included on the April Referendum's ballot without notice, a key part of the resolution is consent by you to include either of your names on the list of nominees," Escobar's message read, failing to acknowledge that it wasn't just "without notice," it was completely without consent. Or respect.

In a radical gear shift, the initiative Escobar and Short consistently referred to as an "election" was now a "Referendum," a term never presented to the candidates or the public before asking them to vote on it.

After an act, taken independently by Short, that Kraut describes as "absurd, possibly illegal and certainly immoral," Escobar offered an ungenerous six hours, tops, for Polivy and Kraut to decide, without so much as confirming their receipt of his email.

No apology was offered to either of the men who have volunteered countless hours of service to the community but were treated without regard for their integrity or privacy by the Common Council.

Escobar's coldly offered deadline was, as anyone who has followed this story from its start in February witnessed, consistent with the disregard for contemporary norms of ethical conduct and disrespect with which Short conducted and he championed the campaign.

From the Beginning: An Election

Consistent with every other campaign concerning RIOC Board nominations, the initiative generally aimed at gathering a preferred list of nominees to be submitted to the Governor was described as an election. A logo with the word "Election" was created, as you can see above.

Short, after her operation stumbled and crashed to an ignominious finish, tried to walk "Election" back and replace it with "vote," then "survey," until she and Escobar finally landed on "Referendum," a term not used while votes were being sought and counted.

In the Common Council's public relations vehicle, the Main Street WIRE, Short's initial shot at rallying the public to her cause was echoed on the front page by Editor Briana Warsing who never batted and eye at any of Short's specious claims. Some were of questionable accuracy; others, simply unbecoming of an effort by an organization claiming to be the voice of the Roosevelt Island community.

All seven seats not set aside by statute for state officials, Short wrote, were up for grabs, but only two were really open. She created the impression that the election had some sort of official endorsement, although RIOC's highest local official had already told her that running a campaign to nominate Board Members was "ridiculous." The state wanted no part of it.

As she rolled out the election initiative, Short retaliated at the official, RIOC President and CEO Susan Rosenthal, calling her a "demagogue" and quoting her as saying that Board Members were mere "rubber stamps" for whatever orders came down from her boss in the Governor's office in Albany.

With the Common Council where she serves as Government Relations Committee Chair, Short pushed support for her campaign by arguing that State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright "wants it," according to Common Council Members who were present. Seawright aides later rejected the claim, but Short and Seawright are in regular contact. Seawright recently awarded the Roosevelt Islander a "Women of Distinction" award.

Common Council Members also reported that Short pitched the election as a way of showing disfavor for five sitting resident RIOC Board Members. On Common Council discussion threads, she wrote of particular distaste for David Kraut. Although little support was won for that idea, she eventually pursued it anyway.

A Failure to Launch

Possibly because Short and Escobar overestimated the impact of promoting their project heavily in the Main Street WIRE, these days a little read shadow of the publication it was during the editorship of Dick Lutz, too few people stepped up to make the election competitive. This has been the case for most RIRA elections in recent years as resident engagement has hit all-time lows.

Only four individuals out of thousands eligible collected the 50 signatures required. Joining them for the contest was Michael Shinozaki, a current Board Member who answered affirmatively to a Short email asking whether he wished to continue.

The option used by Shinozaki had not been made public in any of Short's or Escobar's media promotions. Residents were likely to believe he'd met the same requirements laid out for everyone else. Without any plan for verifying receipt, Short had fired off emails to all five sitting resident Members, asking if they wished to continue. Kraut and Polivy did not respond, but according to Short, Margie Smith, who she identified to the Common Council as one of her sponsors in mounting the election, said she wished to be replaced by a fresh face. This claim was later contradicted in a Main Street WIRE profile in which she declared her desire to stay on the Board until the Governor decided otherwise.

Defying Gravity

In spite of the lack of candidates, a fatal flaw that meant that, in order to win, one had only to get a single vote, and even that would leave two slots unaddressed, Short declared getting only five contenders a win. She pressed on to stage a Candidates Night. The Main Street WIRE complied predictably and gave up a full page for color photos of each candidate accompanied with statements they submitted about why they should be elected.

It's unlikely any of the candidates, apart from Shinozaki, were fully informed about or prepared for what was to follow on the days when elections were conducted in building lobbies.

At a thinly attended Candidates Night in the Senior Center, each listened as Short repeated her rationale for arranging the voting. To anyone concerned about the Common Council's credibility, the paucity of residents interested in meeting the candidates, only about a dozen, this should have been a major red flag that something was amiss. Short was undeterred.

One highlight was a short speech by Smith, who openly supported the election. She explained the importance of voting by reciting an established Maple Tree Group doctrine: Residents have control over how public money got spent nor over how land gets used on the Island. Both claims are demonstrably false.

Troubling as massive indifference was to objective observers, it was worse to have officials who ought to be disinterested or at least appearing to be make political appeals for such a flawed enterprise.

But all that paled in comparison to what happened on election days, April 17th and 18th.

Bad Ballots, Deceptive Voting Conditions

David Kraut was shocked when he walked into his lobby in Roosevelt Landings and found a ballot with his name on it. A second Board Member, Howard Polivy, got the news of his inclusion in an email from a resident while out of town. Neither had been informed by Short or Escobar that they were being added to the ballot, they told The Daily, nor had either given anyone permission to do so.

Among the numerous fatal flaws that should have caused the process to be halted and trash-canned, Polivy and Kraut were put into competition without being offered the opportunities every other candidate had to present their credentials to Island residents on Candidates Night or in the WIRE profiles, should they have chosen to do so, given the surprising circumstances. How could the voting be fair, even to the candidates who submitted petitions on a different basis?

Short snorted that her committee had a right to put anyone they wanted on the ballot, although it turned out in later Common Council deliberations that she acted independently. She further claimed that Kraut and Polivy had not taken her up on her offer to opt out, although she could not prove that either received her email or understood the consequences. No one but Short, as far as we can find out, was aware of these conditions.

Additional concerns raised around putting people on election ballots without their permission or even awareness included Short's failure to include residents who'd met the requirements in the past and won in Island-wide balloting. Larry Parnes, Erin Feely-Nahem, Frank Farance and Jonathan Kalkin were ignored, although none of them had with withdrawn from consideration or been told they were being dropped. Kalkin had actually appointed, but he'd been removed in favor of a politically connected Brooklyn resident.

In her haste to push the procedure forward, Short ignored them, never addressing the obvious questions.

If the ineptly conceived ballots weren't bad enough, Short's group made matters worse by sending volunteers out to sit at tables marked with crudely handmade signs reading "RIOC Vote," feigning an official imprimatur without, importantly, any mention of the Common Council, which was the actual sponsor, or any reference to "nominations."

The votes, by any moral standard, should have been tossed and apologies offered to the community at large as well as specific individuals. But that's not the sort of stuff the Jeffrey Escobar lead Common Council does.

Standing Up to Short, But Not Enough

When the Common Council met on May 3rd to, among other things, vote on Short's proposal that they certify the election results, a sizable contingent confronted her about the many shortcomings. 

"They could see what she was up to," one Member told The Daily. "Even Jeff was getting irritated with her interrupting everyone."

But when push came to shove, the Council approved an altered report of the results to be passed on elected officials, Rebecca Seawright in the State Assembly and José Serrano Jr. in the State Senate as well as Governor Cuomo.

"Because we wanted to be fair to the volunteers," those nominated in the election, that is, everyone on the ballot, had their names recommended to Albany, validated by Escobar.

Two conditions were demanded by the Council. First, vote tallies had to be eliminated because the playing field had not been level. This was a useless gesture since Short had already had them published in the Main Street WIRE and on the Roosevelt Islander blog before they were certified. The second condition was that Escobar would send the chilly opt out emails to Kraut and Polivy.

"As you may or may not know," Kraut responded, sarcastically mimicking Escobar's opening, "it has long been my policy to stay personally out of RIRA affairs and to attempt to hold other members of the RIOC organization to the same standard. This policy dates from the time I was president of RIRA in 1992-1994, when I caught the then-administration of RIOC attempting to stir something up in RIRA."

He continued, "Therefore my first instinct was to ignore your request of this date completely, as I ignored any notice I may or may not have gotten from your election committee. However, that committee made the absurd, possibly illegal and certainly immoral decision that my silence in that matter implied my consent to my name being misused.   "I would be perfectly comfortable providing you with no response whatsoever, based on the principal I have outlined in the first two paragraphs above.  However I am forced to deem that in this case, a non-response would itself  be an interference in RIRA's business."   In other words, the Common Council, led by Escobar, put Kraut again in an untenable position in which he had no choice in keeping with his own values.   Polivy, although the Council failed to honor his request that any results forwarded include a note that both his and Kraut's names had been added without their consent, also allowed his name to be included. A Council Member explained that, once the totals were struck from the report, honoring that request hadn't been necessary, but the results, showing Polivy and Kraut coming in last, had already been published, with no caveat. You can't unwrap the past and fix it, but an opportunity was there to clarify what had been reported and was ignored.  

Conclusion

A recent article in the New York Times, discussing President Trump's public style, reported that he followed to tactics taught him by the later disgraced and disbarred New York attorney Roy Cohn, his mentor. That style includes never admitting a mistake or apologizing. Cohn also taught Trump to respond to criticism with fierce counterpunches, never backing down. No debating the fine points. Attack and counterattack.   That article occurred to me when I observed Short, unchastened, post election, slinging insults at Frank Farance and Helen Chiviras on a Roosevelt Islander blog thread.   After Chiviras explained in detail that RIOC nominating elections had always been called "elections," not referendums, a term Short and Escobar brought into play after the fact, Short told her that  she just didn't understand the difference between and election and a referendum, period, an absurd claim made with conviction.   With Farance, who took her to task for gutting the Government Relations Committee and contributing to resident disinterest in the Common Council, she said he was guilty of undermining the Council with his frequent criticisms. I had to smile when she added that she wasn't into "blame as you are."   Sadly, Short seems unwilling to keep her promise made earlier in the same thread to stop helping us all with her efforts if she continued catching intense flack.    But hope springs eternal. Maybe one of the Common Council Members who had enough gumption to stand up to her will lead the next elected group to a higher standard that what's been established in recent years. Roosevelt Islanders could benefit from a viable Council that's genuinely inclusive and pushes back agains personal agendas by working to find out what resident interests really are.   Our last hope is that any elected official receiving Escobar's nominee list and his "We hope you will honor the community’s wishes and appoint all seven Island residents to those expired seats" request will recognize it for what it is, hopelessly flawed and unfair and nowhere near earning recognition as "the community's wishes."   The only community being supported consists of Escobar and Short, who together failed to meet the standards for ethics and fairness any neighborhood should expect from public official.

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