Self Governance Movement Backslides

Behind Margie Smith's Resignation, A Dream Unfinished

Updated 34 weeks ago David Stone
Margie Smith interacts with Emily Diaz who spoke up in support of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program in what will be her last Board meeting.
Margie Smith interacts with Emily Diaz who spoke up in support of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program in what will be her last Board meeting.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

As an early member of the Maple Tree Group, now merged into the RIRA Common Council as the Government Relations Committee, Margie Smith devoted time and energy to a winning battle for local control of the RIOC Board. Now, the erosion of those gains under Governor Andrew Cuomo plays a big role in her stepping down.

As a RIOC Board Member, Smith arrived for public meetings noticeably well-prepared. She asked smart questions, challenging the wisdom of proposals and defiantly voting, "No," when she believed that she and her colleagues were being steam-rolled.

Although she did not say so in her statement to the media, it's likely that RIOC's recent demolition of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program played a significant role. After the crushing vote, both she and David Kraut stayed behind, looking tired and disappointed. State agency, non-resident members of the Board, encouraged by President Susan Rosenthal, overturned resident majority sentiment in favor of keeping Charlie DeFino and his popular program in place.

"...because I see more state control over the Board than ever, and certainly more control than what was told to us in our NYS board training, I find myself philosophically out of step with some of the decisions made by the Board."

A sore point of frustration coiled within that expression.

Initially, Smith's reasoning was cool and reasoned.

"When I first joined the RIOC board it was after an election where the residents of the Island chose the people they wanted on the board.  I strongly support elections for board members," she said, restating the principles of the Maple Tree Group that spent years fighting for more local governance. "It’s been 8 years since I was appointed to a 4 year term."

It was followed by a partial meltdown.

"During my tenure the Governor replaced one elected member with a non-elected, non-resident," she summarized. "Another board member has resigned and not been replaced in spite of the fact that there have been several elections where the residents have chosen new board members to fill the empty seats and replace some of the current board members. I see no sign that any action is contemplated any time soon."

Behind Margie Smith's Resignation, A Dream Unfinished

These maneuvers by Cuomo, accumulating power through inaction, resulted in ex officio Board Members with more power than current law intends, fueling concerns over the Governor's deep-seated anti-democracy inclinations.

And Smith's resignation came with a subtle challenge.

"I don’t believe the residents intended for board members to remain in their seats years after their terms had expired.  My leaving at this point gives the city and state time to fill my seat this June. Waiting any longer leaves the same board in place for another year."

The legislative season ends in June, and because new Board Members must be confirmed by the State Senate, action must be taken by then to avoid RIOC's Board operating with only six of nine seats filled. (Fay Christian's resignation, four days after Smith's, makes it five.)

In closing, Smith offered a helping hand to the remaining resident Board Members, David Kraut, Howard Polivy and Michael Shinozaki. 

"I wish the remaining board members luck in the future and will give them my total support in this very difficult job they’ve taken on for the community," she wrote.

Similar sentiments were not extended to RIOC's executive staff or its internal operations. It's not known if the omission was deliberate, but coupled with Smith's frustrations over recent events, it indicates some displeasure.

All Board Members serve as volunteers. The work can be exhausting. Emotions run high. As she steps back from that, Smith is owed a profound amount of gratitude for her contributions. A stalwart advocate for the community, she delivered a consistent message in favor of resident rights and concerns.

Smith has also devoted many hours and refined thought to the Common Council. Her work with the Maple Tree Group was critical to multiple issues. Fortunately, it seems, a good deal of that will continue.

"I intend to remain involved in several projects that are on the table right now," she wrote, "specifically the Hope Memorial and the Island of Arts.  My role will be that of an interested resident rather than a Board Member."

You could almost hear a sigh of relief.

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