Bill A5481 Reported to the Ways and Means Committee

Seawright Announces Action on Residency Requirement for RIOC CEO

Updated 49 weeks ago David Stone
Assembly Member Seawright at work in Albany
Assembly Member Seawright at work in Albany

State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, announced that her bill to require RIOC's Chief Executives to live on Roosevelt Island advanced. Is it time to rejoice or shout, "Stop!"

Seawright's bill mandating current residency for RIOC's CEO or that it be established within one year was moved to the Ways and Means Committee from Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, last week, according to the Assembly Member's weekly constituent newsletter. It's a big deal for Roosevelt Island, and it demands a closer look.

The first order of concern should get the attention of Roosevelt Islanders dismayed at the recent, badly mismanaged RIOC Board Nominating Election promoted by the Common Council. Both initiatives have roots in the discredited Maple Tree Group, now rebranded as the Government Relations Committee of the RIRA Common Council. Both originated under false pretenses.

In Seawright's message accompanying the bill, she said, “Roosevelt Island residents are deeply committed to their community but very disenchanted with its present governance."

Seawright never says from whom she learned that our community is "very disenchanted" with RIOC or if any effort was made to verify the claim. To be clear, there has been no independent survey of resident concerns about our "present governance" in this century. It's likely her listening leaned heavily on the same group that's pushed the argument as a way to undermine and, hopefully, take over RIOC since 1997.

Still hanging on to the Maple Tree Group agenda for so-called self-governance, Sherie Helstien, Joyce Short and Linda Heimer were recently awarded Women of Distinction Awards by Seawright, and Short cited Seawright as her sponsor in initiating and pursuing the RIOC Board nominations voting. (Seawright's aides have denied Short's claim.) Also mentioned as a sponsor was Margie Smith, also a Maple Tree Group and RIOC Board Member.

A second, equally serious concern is Seawright's unfiltered acceptance of the idea, in her own words, "It is a pivotal step towards self-governance for Roosevelt Island residents, creating accountability and requiring greater transparency.”

Recent history raises doubts about this claim. You may or may not covet the misleading concept of "self-governance for Roosevelt Island," but as we have seen with Common Council activity over the last few terms, local elections are no guarantee of "creating accountability."

There is no explanation how this mandate would do any such thing nor now it would require "greater transparency." 

These two are simply talking points, no more valid than any other salesman's puff, which was what we used to call lying to customers by exaggerating product benefits. Puffs were not generally considered illegal because everyone, from used car lots to cheap land in Florida, did them. The same has always been true for politicians.

Smart buyers demand more substance, more detail and proof of objectivity.

What are we being asked to buy with requiring a CEO to live on Roosevelt Island? There is no valid argument that such residency would guarantee better government or a deeper understanding of the community. Don't we all have clueless neighbors? Isn't it just as likely that a nonresident might be better informed, taking advantage of the ability to stand a little back from the fire? Who says you have to get burned to understand flames?

One thing a residency requirement would certainly buy you is a dramatically reduced list of candidates for the job. Moving one's family to an unfamiliar location is daunting under the best of circumstances, and for anyone living in a single family residence with a lawn, swings out back and a dog, Roosevelt Island might be more hurdle than opportunity.

Not that having a local resident in charge would be bad, per se, but limiting choice goes a long way toward securing mediocrity. If someone from our community can't match up to leadership available from outside, then neither he nor she ought to get the front door keys.

A troubling concern comes from reports that Common Council Members relayed their concerns about the residency requirements to Seawright's Chief of Staff Katarina Matic, but those concerns were not investigated.

Perhaps it's a reflection of the kinds of local sources Seawright has relied on that her message accompanying the residency bill contained a gross error: “Presently, there are no residency requirements for RIOC board directors..." This is clearly false as five of the appointed Board Members are required by law to be Roosevelt Island residents, and RIOC is in full compliance.

I pointed out the mistake to Matic, who acknowledge the miscue. That's not as big a deal as identifying the source of this and other misinformation on which Seawright has based her actions.

Legislative actions, even those with immediate local impact, frequently slip under the radar for most of us. Fortunately, this one has not, and it gives Assembly Member Seawright an opportunity to expand her community contacts and reconsider pushing this bill until Roosevelt Islanders can be convinced they want it and fully understand its potential repercussions.

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