Board Meetings Used As PR Forums

About RIOC: Notes for David Kraut & Susan Rosenthal

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone
David Kraut taking the first ride on the rebuilt Tram in 2010.
David Kraut taking the first ride on the rebuilt Tram in 2010.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

If PR nonsense and fanciful, libertarian thinking surged in the East River as it does with RIOC, we'd all be drowning with just the upper floors in Manhattan Park above the flood tide. Last week's Board Meeting set a high water mark in bilge displacement as the State pushed through unchecked.

A telling feature at any RIOC Board Meeting is its public session, a half-hour allotted for comments, limited to two minutes each, by anyone who registers. Management makes clear that this time is outside the formal meeting, that is, meaningless, not recorded as business, sort of a relief valve for resident concerns.

Don't dare trying to instigate a response. That's forbidden. The Board and executives on hand are obliged to sit there, even listening sometimes, but that's it.

Oh, and if a Board Member or executive elects to speak up, that's okay. After all, this about them, not you.

And you're expected to keep you mouth shut throughout the rest of the meeting and hold your gag reflex in check, too. It flows really thick sometimes. You're not supposed to notice.

The October 18th Board Meeting was no different, except where Board Members and President stepped up to promote self-absolution in an environment where challenges are not allowed.

These echoed inappropriately volunteered exonerations, even praise, of Susan Rosenthal and her administration regurgitated at, of all things, groundbreaking for the new Roosevelt Island Public Library.

But we're free to speak publicly here - as is any Board Member or RIOC executive who wishes. So, we will. 

According to the Roosevelt Islander's report, there were two outstanding (annoying) instances that require responses.

David Kraut's Peculiar Claim

In an OpEd in the Main Street WIRE, I once wrote that David Kraut's the smartest man on Roosevelt Island. I also thought he was one of the wisest.

Then.

And I'll add that it's unlikely anyone has unselfishly volunteered more time, energy, insight and smarts to the betterment of Roosevelt Island than Kraut. He's served on the Common Council, as President; contributed to the Main Street WIRE as a reporter; and held a seat for over 25 years on RIOC's Board, a job requiring many hours of study and preparation behind the scenes.

He also, once, apparently after reading a report Dick Lutz and I co-authored in the WIRE muttered, "You're on my shit list," in response to my casual greeting as we passed on Main Street. I've since been released from that purgatory, but I may be on my way back.

When I read his statement, volunteered at the end of the Board's official session, with no business left on the agenda, a flag went up faster than a backfield judge's after a blatant case of pass interference on Hakeem Nicks at the Meadowlands goal line.

David Kraut, this year, at a RIOC committee meeting.
David Kraut, this year, at a RIOC committee meeting.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

"The island is in better shape than its ever been, and it's getting better, step by step, capital project by capital project," Kraut said, according to the Roosevelt Islander. "Our main job is to sweep the streets, shovel the snow, cut the grass, take out the trash. We're doing very well."

Really? Let's unpack that.

Take the "capital project by capital project" piece for a start.

That's a Rosenthal talking point, self-justification floated many times before.

Anyone can see that the seawall project sought by every RIOC President in memory is underway, and Blackwell House's endless reconstruction continues while helix and Tram platform repairs finally wrapped up, both later than projected and over their original budgets.

Beneficiary of a $25 million windfall from land ceded for building Cornell Tech, Rosenthal has resources on hand none of her predecessors did. Who's to say a dynamic, transparent leader like Steve Shane or Charlene Indelicato couldn't have done just as well or better?

And let's not forget that these are RIOC's self-selected projects. There was no outreach to the community, far from it, either to get a feel for what we wanted or to sell Rosenthal's preferences.

Kraut heaps praise on what's little more than a lucky break that may have yielded better results under other leadership.

But it's his, "Our main job is to sweep the streets, shovel the snow, cut the grass, take out the trash..." that sends flares jumping into the air.

Let me count the ways that's wrong, even ignoring the mediocre show shoveling of which anyone who regularly walks the promenades in winter is surely aware.

1) Last I checked, the singularly most significant thing RIOC does (and does well) is run a transportation system consisting of two Tram cabins, their supporting infrastructure and about a half-dozen buses. It's certainly the most visible, and the community today would be unrecognizable without it.

Without Red Buses, started when Manhattan Park opened (and largely paid for my them), housing north of the WIRE buildings would not be viable, and the Octagon may never have been built at all.

Can you imagine Roosevelt Island without the Tram? Easier to imagine uncut grass and unswept streets. Residents could even lace up their boots and do those things themselves. 

But buses and the Tram? No. We need RIOC for that, and the State does a pretty good job of it.

2) What are all those green spaces you see while gliding east on the Tram? Parks? Run by RIOC? Yes, our parks are vital, exceptionally well-maintained community resources that help define us.

3) Kraut's most disturbing omission is RIOC's role in negotiating and managing ground leases for every residential property and commercial establishment on Roosevelt Island.

As we saw when affordability and our legacy of income distribution took a body blow as Rivercross was allowed to waltz out of Mitchell-Lama, pouring windfall profits over legacy tenants, some of them Board Members, this role is vital to what the community is and will be in the future.

Susan Rosenthal consults with Board Members Margie Smith (since resigned) and David Kraut.
Susan Rosenthal consults with Board Members Margie Smith (since resigned) and David Kraut.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Perhaps Kraut forgot how Rosenthal left Westview residents hanging by a thread for a year and a half while she busied herself moving the goalposts every time a settlement with the sponsor drew near. In the end, she came within hours of blowing a deal that could've - excuse me, make that should've - been done in 2016.

Katherine Grimm, pediatrician to more than a generation of Roosevelt Island children, once told me that her greatest regret from her time on RIOC's Board was allowing 546 Main Street to lose its exclusivity for the elderly and disabled in the conversion from Eastwood to Roosevelt Landings.

David, you were there, right? You live in Roosevelt Landings but never saw managing leases as a main function of RIOC when affordability got tossed out the window along with grassroots rights of the elderly and disabled?

Honestly?

4) Also unacknowledged goes RIOC's ham-handed efforts at social engineering. You didn't notice? 

Let's share a recent incident. Pulling in non-resident resources to bolster an unfair vote, RIOC singlehandedly destroyed the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, a gem of community integration clearly favored by locals, gratuitously destroying the reputation of its leader, Charley DeFino, in the process. 

Within months, the State took over operations themselves, increasing the budget by a factor of 4 while serving fewer kids.

Oh, and that enormous budget increase, bringing it to seven times greater than the total of Public Purpose Grants to Roosevelt Island nonprofits serving the entire community in any given year... Kraut voted "Yes" on that, and he fought to save the Youth Program. 

But it's really just sweeping the streets that matters? 

What the hell...?

Susan Rosenthal's: "My door is always open..."

No, it's not.

Susan Rosenthal with Hudson Partner David Kramer at the Welcome the Welcome Sign event, early this month.
Susan Rosenthal with Hudson Partner David Kramer at the Welcome the Welcome Sign event, early this month.
Photo courtesy of the Roosevelt Islander

The first time I heard that from a RIOC President, it was Steve Shane, and I was covering his operations for the WIRE. 

"Just stop by," Steve said.

How could that be? I asked myself at the time. Didn't he have meetings to attend, private conferences to conduct? A multimillion dollar agency to run?

Of course, he did. I respected Steve's good intentions and made appointments anyway. Who wants to cool their heals in RIOC's tiny waiting room or trudge back home and try again later?

And there's a not so obvious message slipped inside Rosenthal's gesture: You come to me. Her Highness does not come to you.

Another thing I've learned from RIOC's "Come in for a talk" strategy is that, at least at times, it's meant to hold control inside 591 Main Street and, significantly, to keep as much as possible off the record. 

For example, Rosenthal and company refuses to answer important questions in writing via email but says any of us are free to drop by, any old time. Why not just answer the questions? It's a hell of a lot more convenient, easier on our time.

Those RIOC office hours, with the doors supposedly always open, are times when most of us are off earning a living.

Reality Check: Some questions for Susan Rosenthal

If RIOC's President/CEO is really keen on communicating with the public, she can start by answering some questions that have gone unanswered by her or her staff, for weeks and months.

(I should also remind readers that Common Council Vice President Lynne Strong-Shinozaki grew so frustrated with RIOC's unwillingness to work with her group that she lofted a rare obscenity, not to be repeated here for a second time, about being treated like mushrooms.)

So, let's ask:

1) How do you explain score sheets that were clearly tampered with, along with other irregularities, in your first solicitation for operating the Roosevelt Island Youth Center? Presented with evidence, you acted as if it never happened. Transparency leads to trust. So, who changed the score sheets and what did you do about it?

2) Whose bright idea was it to attack the Wildlife Freedom Foundation's cat sanctuary in Southpoint? Credulity shredding excuses got piled on, one after another, until you ended up turning the water back on, after weeks of stress and anxiety. What did you do in the aftermath that may lead us to trust your staff's good intentions in the future?

3) In a formal statement, you said that your major concern about the cat sanctuary is that the water supply is non potable. But that's nothing new. When, as we asked at the time, did you find that out? And when was WFF notified?

4) Last summer, Frank Farance discovered that drinking fountains in playgrounds and parks were being supplied with irrigation system water known to be unfit for human consumption. Although you shut down most of the fountains, this had been going on for decades with countless residents and visitors exposed to all manner of potential contaminants. When are you going to get around to telling the public the full extent of that exposure? More important, why haven't you done so already?

5) A report you solicited from Cameron Engineering made clear that RIOC has not been compliant on water safety for many years, whether it concerns backflow prevention devices or water quality safety. Some of your staff's been on the job for a decade and others for a few years while gross violations continued and would still be had Farance not blown the whistle on their practices. What steps have you taken to hold anyone accountable? If no one's accountable, why? And what's to stop them from doing it again?

6) In another public statement and in at least one letter to State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, you said that "certain residents," presumably Frank Farance and me, were alarming the public by misinterpreting test findings at park and playground water fountains by Long Island Analytical. Please detail the claimed misinterpretations.

7) in the same statement, you said that "no coliforms" were found in testing. But that's not true. Total coliforms, that is, bacteria associated with the feces of warm-blooded animals, in excess of allowable limits, were found in both Southpoint (where the fountain was never shut off) and Lighthouse Park. You've never retracted that false statement. Why and who takes responsibility for it?

Along with others from residents, these are questions asked of you and your staff without generating the courtesy of even a response. If you can't accept enough responsibility to reply in full to critical questions, how are we to expect "dropping by" when your door is always open to be helpful?

And, look, these are just the highlights. Other questions are out there in the community.

You need to answer them responsibly and to start working with the Common Council and other community groups, not just pay lip service to good intentions.

 

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