Profound Failure To Lead

Clueless Cuomo Appointee Aggravates Community Tensions

Updated 15 weeks ago David Stone
Chair Alex Valella, second from left, listens to speakers on both sides of the Youth Center conflict.
Chair Alex Valella, second from left, listens to speakers on both sides of the Youth Center conflict.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In most disputes, figures involved choose to take the high or the low road, sometimes a blend of both. But confronted with a tense community, its anger fueled by racial and class divisions on Roosevelt Island, RIOC Board Chair Alex Valella stunned a packed audience at last night's Board Meeting by choosing "none of the above," hustling out of 8 River Road as if being pursued by ghosts. RIOC scored yet another failure in leadership certain to aggravate harsh feelings and deepen scars while the interests of local children increasingly risk becoming collateral damage.

No matter how the pending award of a grant to manage the Roosevelt Island Youth Center went, there was bound to be hard feelings, but many believe that RIOC mishandled every step along the way, making situations worse and, once again, demonstrating the State agency's lack of connection with and insight into the community.

Largely, RIOC's failures are conditioned by Governor Andrew Cuomo's abysmal track record of appointing managers who are not qualified but are apparently owed favors. Conditions set up by Cuomo's missteps are unfair to both his appointees and the community.

Chair Alex Valella, second from left, listens to speakers on both sides of the Youth Center conflict.
Chair Alex Valella, second from left, listens to speakers on both sides of the Youth Center conflict.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In the beginning...

Late in 2016, without adequate explanation, RIOC President and CEO Susan Rosenthal announced a Request for Proposals to operate the Youth Center. The Roosevelt Island Youth Program had managed it for four decades without any RFPs needed to cover the grant.

RIOC's initial error came when its failure to communicate a rationale for the move opened the door to rumors and accusations. Inevitably, the children served were pushed to the side as a turf war raged.

RIYP, Island Kids and the Roosevelt Island Center for Community Development went through a rigorous process of completing bid applications and sitting through multiple interviews.

Ultimately, RIOC threw out the entire contest after it ended in a passionately disputed tie between RIYP and Island Kids that led to a storm of complaints from all sides.

Anger swelled when a Freedom of Information request by Frank Farance exposed what appeared to be tampered with score sheets that led to the tie. Some observers claimed to see evidence of bid rigging as well.

The reviews and scoring had been handled exclusively by RIOC behind closed doors.

Another failure in leadership surfaced when RIOC failed to address community concerns, hunkering down in silence and leaving frustrations as well as suspicions to swell.

Cuomo appointed State representatives ignored all requests for an investigation.

Instead, a second bid was set up, this one with RIOC standing back at arms length, taking guidance from NYS Child and Family Services and leaving the scoring to non-employees.

In January, it was announced that Roosevelt Island Youth Program won the contest. In a rare show of transparency, RIOC voluntarily offered details of the bid results for public consideration.

Now at the end of a second arduous process, a contentious group of residents aligned with PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman, who has feuded with Youth Program leader Charlie DeFino, and the school's PTA mounted a challenge to overturn the results.

The PTA is closely affiliated with losing bidder Island Kids, even sharing employer identification numbers with them on IRS filings.

A Board Meeting goes off the rails...

A vote to award RIYP a three year contract, based on bid results, was third on the agenda at RIOC's January Board Meeting.

But even before that convened, signs of trouble were brewing. 

In spite of bidding being closed and, supposedly, over, RIOC's lead attorney, Jacqueline Flug, apparently responding to pressure from Island Kids's supporters, demanded that DeFino come to her office for a conference before the Board Meeting. Flug reportedly went so far as attempting to strong arm DeFino into canceling a critical medical appointment with his cardiologist to accommodate her demands.

RIOC, it seemed, was failing to stand tall, once again, buckling under to political pressure that extended beyond the physical boundaries of Roosevelt Island.

Prior to the Board's getting together at 8 River Road, letter writing campaigns went into full swing. The majority of those contacting RIOC, according to Board Member Margie Smith and The Daily's own internal count, weighed heavily in favor of the Youth Program. The margin was roughly 2 to 1 pro RIYP.

Attendance at the Board Meeting divided along similar lines as did the lineup of speakers who offered short appeals before the anticipated vote.

Even so, however emotional, speakers from all points of view were respectful and generally well-spoken. A few in favor of Island Kids, unfortunately, took the opportunity to repeat unsubstantiated and potentially slanderous claims that had been circulated in the local print media.

But there was an air of "grin and bear it" leading up to Item 3 on the Boards agenda.

Valella, in coat and scarf at right, walks out before General Counsel Jacqueline Flug is able to finish packing up.
Valella, in coat and scarf at right, walks out before General Counsel Jacqueline Flug is able to finish packing up.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Here's where RIOC's greatest single failure of leadership wounded all sides.

Openly choosing to ignore bid results that all agreed were fair - until the results came in - Chair Alex Valella swept aside protests from resident Board Members David Kraut and Margie Smith, singlehandedly deciding to adjourn the meeting without a vote.

He didn't feel "closure," he explained to a hundred baffled listeners, throwing all existing disputes back into the fire and blocking any chance for healing to begin.

Board Members David Kraut and Margie Smith are left sitting after Valella rejected their arguments.
Board Members David Kraut and Margie Smith are left sitting after Valella rejected their arguments.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

"Alex isn't listening," someone shouted from the audience.

Valella responded by putting on his coat and walking out ahead of everyone, leaving residents and Board Members alike confused and concerned about what comes next. 

Confused, annoyed audience members mill around after the Board Meeting abruptly ended.
Confused, annoyed audience members mill around after the Board Meeting abruptly ended.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

As for DeFino, who has been put through the wringer for the last year and a half, cooperating with bidding his group won twice without being awarded, he is mulling next steps but is considering shutting down all RIYP programs at the Youth Center as early as Saturday.

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