Feudal Society Updated

RIOC: Board of Directors or Vassals?

Peter McCarthy

The idea's a good one. Bring in a majority of Roosevelt island residents to populate a Board meant to guide and approve how RIOC governs. But has crafty maneuvering in Albany handcuffed our locals, turning them into medieval vavasours? Are they stuck, for all serious purposes, with simply nodding along with Governor Andrew Cuomo's decisions, no longer empowered to influence much of anything?

Nostalgically as well as somewhat bitterly, we recall the last time the RIOC Board was accused of "flexing its muscles." That was when the Maple Tree Group ganged up to fire RIOC's best CEO, Steve Shane, because he resisted demands for windfall profits at Rivercross at the expense of the future of RIOC finances.

Rallying likely supporters, the Maple Tree Group, with four Rivercross residents on the Board, worked mischievously with the Common Council to keep them seated until the money could be secured with Shane's replacement, Leslie Torres, happy to dance to their tune.

Maybe it was more about fortifying bank accounts than flexing muscles, but I digress...

RIOC's Budget Exposes Weakness

The first time The Daily witnessed the shuffling of resident Board Members into contemporary vassalage was when President/CEO Susan Rosenthal presented and argued in favor of a budget that differed rudely with resolutions previously approved by the Board.

Charlene Indelicato, March 2016, with new hire Kimberly Quinones
Charlene Indelicato, March 2016, with new hire Kimberly Quinones
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In 2013, the Board voted affirmatively on a term sheet giving RIOC $1 million annually from New York State for 55 years in exchange for 2.6 acres Cornell needed to build its new campus or (option B) an equivalent amount to support capital infrastructure improvements.

In either case, in the Memorandum of Understanding, signed off on by then CEO Charlene Indelicato, payment was to be fully handed over at its current value, about $23 million, by the end of 2018.

But the budget Rosenthal presented did not include even the $1 million due for 2017.

The trouble, it seemed, was that Indelicato signed an MOU that, unlike the Board's approved resolution, tied the State payment strictly to infrastructure improvements, disregarding the value of the land provision completely.

And making it worse, that was interpreted by the State overlords to mean that, if RIOC didn't do the infrastructure work, they weren't entitled to the cash.

Resident Board Members, lead by Margie Smith, were incensed, arguing that what the State was ramming through was not what they approved. 

In a "like or lump it" approach we'd later witness when the Board was sucked into approving Southtown Buildings 8 & 9 without an opportunity to figure out what the hell they were voting on, Rosenthal argued for a strategic approach.

Forget that a previous administration had betrayed the Board's sentiment, Rosenthal argued for a strategy of aggressively attacking much needed infrastructure improvements to show the state they had good intentions, which might get the overlords to release the money they were supposed to pay without demanding that the vassalage jump through a bunch of hoops.

State representatives on the Board - Surprise! Surprise! - perkily voted in favor of the funkily unpleasant budget, undoubtedly pleasing Lord Cuomo, but Smith voted against it, as did Fay Christian.

Correction: a previous version of this article said that Fay Christian voted for the budget and Michael Shinozaki against. The opposite is true. Christian joined Margie Smith in voting against the proposed budget.

While the flawed, approved budget left hard feelings in its wake, it also suggested another message: even when it was wrong, the State was right and would get its way.

The Contemporary Feudal Systems Casts A Long Shadow

Susan Rosenthal (left) with State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Senator Jose Serrano Jr., in August.
Susan Rosenthal (left) with State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Senator Jose Serrano Jr., in August.
Photo courtesy Office of AM Seawright

Six months later, RIOC administration was at it again, dumping on Board Members a highly complex Amendment 5 to the Southtown ground lease, just two days before being asked to vote on it.

After observing the contentious debate that followed, we talked with a veteran Real Estate expert who told us that, even given only two full days, he'd have problems getting his arms around it.

Complications never before seen on Roosevelt Island, like "air rights," had to be weighed, and as only one resident Board Member was retired, the others had jobs and family obligations to tend to as well.

"It’s a matter of accountability," argued David Kraut. "If we can’t see the documents, we can’t vote on it."

Christian was upset.

"I'm tired of being pushed," she protested and moved that the vote be tabled until there was time for Board Members to look at what they voting on, a reasonable request for a groundbreaking amendment that would use City subsidies for the first time to help expand affordability.

A stream of speakers who'd been lined up by RIOC to support the amendment stepped forward to offer they opinions, which could under no circumstances be considered unbiased.

RIOC's Kimberly Quinones, who oversaw negotiations with Hudson, insisted that the only concession given was on reduced lease payments in exchange for two buildings and a best ever affordability plan.

But according to our expert, that wasn't true. Air rights and what else were Board Members not given enough time to consider?

Arms were twisted.

The deal must be done to meet public authority legal timelines, and the City had to get the agreement for consideration in December and, according the Hudson Partner David Kramer, "The last thing you want is to get kicked into June..." And so forth.

An exhausted Board never demanded to know why such a longstanding project couldn't survive a six month wait to be sure it was right for the community or why they were refused reasonable time to do their jobs.

"I need more materials," Christian insisted, taking a moment to chastise Rosenthal for ignoring a prior request for information.

But in 21st Century vassalage, this was nothing more than a courtesy pressure release, allowing the local vavasours a chance to lower their collective blood pressure.

As Kraut, a hardcore realist at heart, conceded in declining to support Christian's motion to table Amendment 5, "Eventually, we're going to approve this anyway."

In other words, complaints from resident representatives about inconsideration by the Lords of RIOC, were so much hot air.

Like it or lump it.

The motion failed, and the amendment was approved by a 5 to 2 vote with only Christian and Smith resisting.

Coda

Rumors circulating this week suggest that Governor Cuomo is preparing to replace the entire RIOC Board and that Rosenthal is interviewing prospects.

Is it possible that even futile, but heartfelt resistance to being pushed into overlooking responsibilities is too much resistance for the overlord?