Seawright, Serrano Jr. & Kallos Stay on the Sidelines of Worse

Cuomo/Rosenthal's RIOC Pummels Roosevelt Island - Where Are Our Electeds?

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone
Cuomo/Rosenthal's RIOC Pummels Roosevelt Island - Where Are Our Electeds?

Opinion: Cuomo Thumbs His Nose At Roosevelt Island, Installs Unqualified RIOC Leader was our headline in October, 2016. I was wrong. No, not about Cuomo. Of course he was thumbing his nose at us, as he had before and has since. Yet Susan Rosenthal may be qualified, just not for the job we expect of her. Instead, she executes the Governor's anti-democratic bidding on Roosevelt Island. But that begs the question: where are Kallos, Seawright and Serrano, the people we elected to help and protect us?

RIOC's 3 Steps To Destabilize Community Values

Step back from the daily focus on isolated issues. Look at the whole package. A pattern emerges. It's to strengthen and reward Governor Cuomo's cronies and financial backers, eradicate pesky, interfering institutions, feed developers' lust to gentrify our image and increase the worth of their investments.

Full disclosure: I am a registered Democrat. My disappointment in Cuomo and his followers is their failure to live up to their liberal rhetoric.

First, Destroy the Roosevelt Island Youth Program

Take the most egregious example, Rosenthal's successful drive to destroy the Roosevelt Island Youth Program. Although RIYP was not without detractors, no other Island organization has ever been as inclusive or popular with kids and their parents, a fact that matters little to Cuomo's version of "liberal."

RIYP was RIOC's first visible target after Rosenthal took over as President and Executive Director.

40 years providing activities for kids, first to bring Beacon after school money to the community and persistently frustrated with RIOC's politicizing of youth development and incompetence over several administrations, the Youth Program was abruptly told in 2016 that it had to win a bid to retain funding for its activities, something never before required. No coherent reason has ever been offered, and no other Island nonprofit has been similarly attacked.

There's evidence of the move being coordinated behind closed doors with PS/IS 217's decision to eject RIYP from the Beacon Program it brought to the school, again without explanation.

RIOC screwed up immediately, publishing a request for contract bids when it was actually a grant for which bidders were asked to compete. After three Island organizations, the Roosevelt Island Center for Community Development (RICCD), Island Kids and RIYP invested many hours developing complex proposals and going through rigorous interviews, RIOC unapologetically threw the whole business out, not because of the inappropriate bidding procedure though, but because of something weirder.

There was a casual carelessness about it all, belying public claims about the State's good intentions. It's as if the result was always known and only mechanics had to be worked out.

Errors and questionable interventions piled up over the months. First, neither RICCD nor Island Kids qualified by experience as described in the RFP but were allowed to compete as if they did. No one else chose to challenge RIYP.

In the initial round of reviews, RICCD failed to meet the minimum score required for moving into the second and final round, which included a series of interviews with RIOC personnel. RIOC let them continue anyway, rounding their score up a notch to squeeze them in.

Any ethical bid administrator knows that's improper. You don't change standards to accommodate a single bidder at any time, least of all in midstream.

RIOC added misconduct by allowing doctored score sheets to be considered in determining final results. The changed score sheets, discovered by Frank Farance in a FOIL request, elevated Island Kids to a tie with RIYP. 

What happened next was more peculiar - and suspicious.

Soon after announcing a runoff to break the tie, RIOC cancelled the entire bid, blaming not the inappropriate RFP, but a cascade of complaints about the results. Since when does any group's dissatisfaction with bid results justify a do-over?

Farance argues that the change really occurred because he discovered and publicly announced that Island Kids, a child enrichment service, did not have the required certifications for operating a youth program and could not go forward if they won, leaving RIYP the only valid bidder. Suspicions were reinforced when RIOC waited until immediately after Island Kids earned certification before issuing a new solicitation, this time a request for grant proposals.

In the meantime, RIOC turned down an opportunity to clear the air, rejecting demands for an investigation looking into charges of bid rigging and the inexplicably doctored score sheets. Did Rosenthal or her handlers already know the truth? What other reason was there to dodge open disclosure?

Aren't innocent people happy to have their actions examined?

Our elected officials uniformly remained quiet, on the sidelines, including Ben Kallos, our City Council Member, who'd laughingly praised Rosenthal's appointment as increasing accountability at RIOC. Seriously.

For residents fearing that RIOC's real ambition was to uproot RIYP, what happened next flipped suspicion into outrage.

A second bid found RIYP going head to head with only Island Kids after RICCD dropped out. RIOC asked another State agency more experienced with youth to oversee the effort. The goal, Rosenthal told the Board in a public session, was to bring in greater expertise to get a more trustworthy result.

This time, RIYP won outright, but RIOC, having listened to local amateur lobbyists aligned with Island Kids, the PS/IS 217 PTA and, according to insiders, Ben Kallos, was never going to let RIYP walk away with the grant. 

RIOC took a cue from a Roosevelt Island Parents Facebook group, largely controlled by an inappropriately politicized PTA, that mounted a vigorous campaign of slander, protected by controls on membership blocking free discussion and any chance for the Youth Program to defend itself. You could literally post anything you wanted in pursuit of destroying RIYP. Members seemed to believe wrecking RIYP would shift the award to Island Kids, which has ties so close with the PTA that they've shared IRS identification numbers on federal documents.

Because RIYP won fair and square on qualifications, RIOC followed Facebook straight into the gutter, normalizing a brutal campaign of character assassination against RIYP Executive Director Charlie DeFino as a way to void an award won in open bidding.

When dozens of speakers lined up at the next RIOC Board Meeting, the clear majority in favor of an award to RIYP, the Board's invertebrate substitute Chair, Alex Valella, refused to allow a vote on the grant award. A stand-in for Cuomo appointed RuthAnne Visnauskas with no ties to Roosevelt Island, he claimed to be troubled by unidentified accusers throwing junk at DeFino. With all other Board Members still seated, he walked out, without an adjournment, over the protests of Board Members and roughly a hundred residents. He was last seen pulling his coat over his shoulders as he raced out of the room.

Within 24 hours, RIOC  lined up an out of town law firm connected with the Cuomo administration to serve as a landing place for any and all accusations with or without substantiation, all good as long as they attacked Charlie DeFino. This effectively took attention away from RIYP's popularity and effectiveness and turned the spotlight on DeFino's accusers.

(Contrast this with the absence of any RIOC investigation into valid complaints about bid-rigging by its own staff, charges many find far more serious than the personal misconduct gossip hovering over DeFino.)

RIOC relied on two disgruntled ex-employees, one who'd been fired by DeFino for incompetence, a parent notorious for chain-smoking in public while pregnant and a resident known for fantastic claims who was observed regularly leaving her children alone in her apartment while she went out for a smoke on Main Street.

Seeing that RIOC was lining up a virtual firing squad against him, no matter how much local kids liked him and were satisfied with his accomplishments, DeFino volunteered to step aside and let RIYP go ahead without him to save the program.

This did not phase RIOC's hit squad. They shot down RIYP's winning bid based on gossip and innuendo but not before State Board Members without connections to Roosevelt Island overruled resident Members who voted 3 to 2 in favor of the award.

Did any objective observer think this was fair and not ordained long before? 

The creepy suspicion of many residents was that, underneath all the posturing and faux administration, RIYP was a little too rainbow for Cuomo's tastes. Rainbows are thought to dampen real estate investment.

After the trashing, DeFino, who'd contributed greatly to Roosevelt Island's development since the '90s, told The Daily that he was so disgusted he'd never set foot in the community again. 

Through all this, the first suspect RFP and the snarky character assassination tooled up to destroy a 40 year old Youth Program along with its Executive Director, Roosevelt Island's locally elected officials, the ones who campaign to protect us and fight for our interests - City Council Member Ben Kallos, State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and and State Senator José Serrano, Jr. - sat on their hands, not a peep heard, as RIOC dismantled a valued community institution.

Why?

Second, Send Westview Affordability Into a Fatal Stall

September, 2016, with a major assist form State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, the Westview Task Force, after years of hard work won approval for an affordability exit from 45 years under Mitchell-Lama. The vote by tenants was overwhelming in favor.

Affordability, encouraging a diverse economic community, had always been on Roosevelt Island's roadmap, and after two original complexes, Rivercross and Eastview (now Roosevelt Landings) went rogue for profit, Westview's hanging onto the mission was considered vital.

But although the Task Force had been guided by Seawright and NYS Homes and Community Renewal, which oversees Mitchell-Lama and RIOC, and kept them in the loop, RIOC immediately crashed high hopes for a quick ground lease extension enabling the affordability plan, demanding such a massive increase in payments from Westview that everything came to a dead halt.

There it stayed for more than a year while, in the meantime, Rosenthal crowbarred through an owner-friendly amendment to Southtowns's ground lease, employing what's known in sales as a "chimes of doom" close that was all bluster, then handled an extension for Rivercross that passed like it was on greased skids.

As months passed, Westview residents were left to suffer. RIOC never reached out to them, other than Rosenthal blowing smoke about how the deal would certainly get done, mollifying anxiety, or treated them as anything more than a nuisance.

Finally, after Rosenthal failed to make progress negotiating with Westview's sponsor representative, David Hirschhorn, who she reportedly referred to as "greedy" out of public view, HCR stepped in, virtually forcing Rosenthal to accept terms HCR believed fair after extensive study.

The Board, a critical player later on, was passive throughout, doing nothing more than hearing updates.

In March, this year, Rosenthal outlined the agreement in a mandatory letter to the State Comptroller and others. That should have been the last step to an accelerated agreement giving Westview tenants a chance to buy their apartments or to continue renting at favorable rates and the community a new, longterm toehold on affordability.

But now, it was the Board's resident Members' turn to muck up the works. Opaque as always, the Board in a closed door meeting with Rosenthal and HCR leader RuthAnne Visnauskas, told them to scram, take their deal and get lost, tear it up, whatever. In reality, everything about that meeting has remained cloaked in secrecy. We know only that the plan got quashed in a move likely to lead to its death.

Although Rosenthal effectively uprooted the agreement by contacting Hirschhorn to demand more money, a reluctant Board seems to have been the catalyst. No one's talking for publication about why three residents would kill the plan championed by their Board President and the head of a State agency providing oversight.

You might expect the community to get at least a vague hint or a summary, but no, not even the other party in negotiations, Westview's sponsor, has been told much of anything.

The trouble now is that, in less than 30 days, the deal will die because funding worked out to finance the mortgage on Westview's amended lease will expire. If it is resurrected, costs passed on the tenants will surely increase, but there is no guarantee - nor optimism - even that will take place.

Rosenthal's obstruction of a reasonable deal for so long appears to be the key element in forcing its demise.

And again, as Westview tenants are left blowing around in the wind, our elected officials, Seawright, Kallos and Serrano are without influence. Seawright's office has, curiously, been telling tenants not to worry, even suggesting that the Governor, who she claims is on their side, may step in personally to force the deal to be finalized, no matter what the Board votes.

That conversation diverts attention from RIOC's chucking another community value onto the tracks. 

Third, Force Out the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary

In this final example, our elected officials aren't entirely silent, but they aren't exactly getting anything done for us either.

In May, volunteers at the cat sanctuary showed up to care for the animals one morning only to discover that the water supply had been shut off. Wildlife Freedom Foundation President Rossana Ceruzzi called RIOC Parks Director Mary Cuneen and was told she'd shut off their water, without prior warning or discussion, because it "impacted" Southpoint's sprinkler system.

WFF uses the water for drinking - hydration's increasingly important as summer heat builds - and for sanitation. 

But RIOC gave watering the grass priority in a setting that's designed to be natural and is not hampered by drought.

Click here to get a current, satirical spin on the grueling process that followed.

Public anger quickly rose, and RIOC sent to spin.

In short, using more evasive moves than Gayle Sayers in his heyday, RIOC hustled in its Public Information Officer to dress up its actions to look more reasonable but largely did little more than splash paint over ridiculous claims made up as each succeeding one failed to find a place in those of us outside government recognize as reality.

From adversely affecting the sprinkler system - not stopping it, mind you, just impacting - RIOC pirouetted to "substantial plumbing issues," then to flooding and "water wastage" to, frighteningly, saying they knowingly contaminated the water supply, without public notice, making the water unsafe for people and/or cats. 

This last, they tried to wriggle out of by refusing to answer simple, direct questions about it (See that bizarre story here.), while we wondered, Where's Ben Kallos? If RIOC's statement is truthful, their lack of backflow prevention devices for preventing sprinkler system contamination violates City law, according to the Department of Environmental Protection's published guidelines.

Since all drinking and irrigation water comes from the same City source, RIOC may be poisoning the system. Yet RIOC saw no need to explain contamination they disclosed in their campaign to force the cat sanctuary out of Southpoint, not even to allay fears. The assumption surrounding their stonewalling is that it's being done because they were RIOCsplaining, that is, lying to score points in the first place and got trapped in their own web of misinformation.

State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney signed a petition demanding that RIOC restore the sanctuary's water supply. Ben Kallos, as far as we know, did nothing. And State Senator José Serrano, Jr., refused to sign but called RIOC where had an opportunity to observe the talents RIOC's gained from kissing the Blarney Stone daily.

None of this caused any change in RIOC's policy. As temperatures soared into the 90s, the water tap remained dry, leading animal rights supporters wondering if the electeds, all members, along with RIOC, of the Cuomo family of politicians, were simply showboating, making a display of compassion while, in reality, doing nothing.

Conclusion

The case against Cuomo/Rosenthal's RIOC makes itself. There aren't much of any alternative explanations for what's gone on since Rosenthal took over from Charlene Indelicato. The State's imperviousness to resident complaints has thickened during her tenure.

Common sense tells us that nothing will change until we replace RIOC and the elected officials, especially Cuomo, who support their anti-community agenda. It's well-established that real estate interests who contribute to the Governor's campaigns have inordinate influence, and that trickles down to RIOC like honey that instantly converts to vinegar when it sluices out from 591 Main Street.

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