Era of Go Along to Get Along May Be Ending

Guess who's putting up a fight for Roosevelt island... Common Council gets tougher

Updated 10 weeks ago David Stone
Guess who's putting up a fight for Roosevelt island... Common Council gets tougher

Stirred, maybe provoked by the State's painful mishandling of Island affairs, the Common Council of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association kicked up its heels over recent State gaffs and may now be aiming one boot up and forward in the direction of RIOC. The long stall of "go along to get along" may be ending.

Left In the Dark and Fed Shit

Sunday afternoon, ubiquitous, indefatigable Lynne Shinozaki, who represents Roosevelt Island on Community Board 8 and also serves as Common Council Vice President, boarded the Red Bus.

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During a bumpy cruise down Main Street, I asked her about an intensely smelly quote she made to the Main Street WIRE Weekly.

"I said mushroom, not fungi," she laughed.

She repeated it. 

“We're left in the dark and fed shit,” she said without any hint of anger.

That's her assessment of how RIOC treats the Common Council and the Residents Association in general, like mushrooms.

"I'll never be a politician. I'm like Bella Abzug," she added, referring to the late Battling Bella, a frank feminist known for freewheeling public comments.

But the late congresswoman was a politician, as is Shinozaki, and a damned fine and effective one.

The WIRE article recalls multiple incidents of bad acting by RIOC, most involving disrespect for resident concerns.

Recent actions by Common Council members in response suggests a sleeping giant may have been awakened.

Common Council's Limitations

A lack of active engagement with too many Roosevelt Islanders has left the group less powerful than it was in the late 90s. That's when they took on RIOC chief Jerome Blue and, for all intents, ran him out of town, or the time seven years ago when, spurred by abuses in the Public Safety Department, they forced the dismissal PSD Director Keith Guerra.

Recently, the Council's had trouble attracting candidates for even top spots. Last election, President Jeffery Escobar ran uncontested, a far cry from days when Matthew Katz defeated incumbents Patrick Stewart and Frank Farance in heated contests.

To some extent, that reflects an impression that the Common Council lacks energy or a mission and has gotten embroiled in unproductive internal wrangling sparked by personality conflicts and the pursuit of individual agendas.

Dueling egos don't yield cohesive - or magnetic - action.

But early this summer, things began to change, stirred by heightened perceptions of RIOC's mishandling of Island affairs.

Common Council Asked To Reflect

Earlier this year, Dave Evans challenged the group to reconsider its mission, to become a more effective voice of advocacy for the community. A universally well-liked Council Member from Southtown, the even keeled Evans may be the ideal messenger.

But it took a major flub by RIOC to bring momentum to change for which everyone seemed ready.

Guess who's putting up a fight for Roosevelt island... Common Council gets tougher

Coincidentally, I first heard about RIOC's bizarre effort to force the cat sanctuary out of Southpoint after seven years when I ran into Evans engaged in conversation with Wildlife Freedom Federation founder Rossana Ceruzzi on the sidewalk in front of PS/IS 217.

Ceruzzi, also a Common Council representative, passionate protector and advocate for animals, was upset, her voice unsteady.

Reluctant to talk on the record for fear of irritating RIOC, she gradually opened up with a story of bullying over the supply of vital water for the cats in her care. Summer approaching increased worries over their safety.

RIOC Parks and Recreation Manager Mary Cuneen had already shut off a tap used by the sanctuary and threatened to begin charging for water if it was turned back on, claiming caregivers flooded the area by leaving the tap running, a charge Ceruzzi refuted that eventually proved false.

Coaxed by Evans, Ceruzzi talked about being subjected to harassment  in a series of emails and meetings with RIOC.

Hoping to untangle the conflict, I contacted Public Information Officer Alonza Robertson to hear the State's side. No one could've predicted the absurdities that followed and still resonate, months later.

Going on information from Cuneen and others in RIOC Operations, Robertson first said that the problem was a serious plumbing issues, but asked for details, he stepped sideways into flooding as the cause for concern.

RIOC's version of reality pitched and rolled from there, and when all was said and done, Robertson, on behalf of RIOC, settled on humanitarian interest as its rationale.

Guess who's putting up a fight for Roosevelt island... Common Council gets tougher

The tap in question, he wrote, supplied contaminated, irrigation system water, and the kindly leaders at 591 Main Street were worried about the cats' welfare.

Never in one of my novels could I have concocted this. It was too screwed up for publication.

Eventually, the full Common Council rallied community support, petitions were circulated and signed by thousands and RIOC backed down. The tap was reopened for the sanctuary.

But this faux pas, as inept as any I've witness before coming from RIOC, opened the flood gates and more serious problems poured in.

But first Scott Piro got after RIOC about employee parking abuses.

In August, Piro, an Octagon resident who's the Common Council's Secretary, dropped a line of concern to Robertson.

"Since RIOC’s new offices opened at 680 Main Street, the organization’s employees have begun parking in front of the Queens-facing entrance. I understand how a convenient parking spot is a limited commodity on the island, but these RIOC vehicles are obstructing the narrow promenade in front – used by pedestrians, bikers, joggers, scooters, strollers, etc."

Although the issued didn't fall within his jurisdiction, Robertson was accommodating. 

"I spoke with our executive team," he told Piro in an email, "and we feel you are 100 percent correct. RIOC staff vehicles should not be parking in that area blocking the Promenade when attending meetings in our new offices at the Warehouse . Please accept our apologies; we will be using the four designated spots at the end of the lane there and if needed, others in the Motorgate or bus garage."

A satisfied Piro shared the good news with local media.

But nothing changed.

Three days later, Piro wrote Robertson again, "...three RIOC vehicles are already needlessly, selfishly obstructing half the width of the promenade in front of 680 Main Street. Please explain this. Did RIOC’s executive team have their fingers crossed when they told you vehicles would no longer park here?"

Miffed that Piro copied local media in his email, Robertson eventually cooled off and, worked to put a stop to the careless, lazy parking habits of RIOC's staff. 

This may not sound like much, but getting RIOC to change even trivial behavior can seem more challenging than persuading Donald Trump to switch to a crewcut.

Simmering Water Gets Hotter

Troubled by what he read, during the cat sanctuary fiasco, about contaminated water supplied without proper warnings in Southpoint, Frank Farance, a Common Council alternate and former President, investigated.

What he found set off public health alarms.

Most, maybe all water fountains in parks and playgrounds on Roosevelt Island were connected, not to safely treated City resources, but to irrigation system water, by definition, unfit for human or animal consumption. It'd been going on for decades.

Kids playing sports in Capobianco Park.
Kids playing sports in Capobianco Park.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

RiOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal acted swiftly, announcing that it "...was immediately shutting down water fountains after concerns, raised by Roosevelt Island resident Frank Farance about potential water source lines," deftly circling around the rawest truths about the situation.

(As we later found out, fountains in Southpoint and Lighthouse Park were never actually shut off, despite Rosenthal's statement.)

This soft-pedaled a serious, longstanding threat to public health and safety, but it was a more overt confession of mistakes than RIOC's accustomed to making.

But the State agency soon reverted to form, calling in an out-of-state testing lab, Healthy Buildings, with no available record of having done outdoor environmental testing.

The lab, not New York certified and having its nearest offices in South Orange, New Jersey, promptly gave the fountains a clean bill of health, although neither they nor RIOC acknowledged lapses in judgment that left children and adults unknowingly drinking non potable irrigation system water for decades.

Enough pressure was brought to bear by local media and elected officials that RIOC set aside Health Buildings's findings and contracted with Long Island Analytical, a New York State certified lab, to do another round.

While this was going on, the Common Council reached out to RIOC for a meeting to discuss the lab results.

A meeting was set for September 14th. RIOC limited attendance to Common Council's Island Services Committee Co-Chairs, Ceruzzi and Mickey Rindler, Vice President Lynne Shinozaki and a handpicked group of RIOC Board and staff along with an official from the State Department of Health.

Media was excluded. After taking a seat at the table with prior approval from RIOC to represent the Roosevelt Islander, Farance evicted by Jacqueline Flug and Shelton Haynes, RIOC Vice Presidents.

RIOC Can Cook

Unknown to most of those present, including all the Common Council representatives, RIOC had a month earlier received a disturbing report from Long Island Analytical.

Fountains in both Lighthouse Park and Southpoint were found to have "total coliforms" in excess of approved limits. Total coliforms are an aggregate of bacteria considered by testers to indicate the possible presence of feces in the water.

Total coliforms are reported and have strict safe limits because, although most coliform bacteria is not hazardous, it's often accompanied by other organisms, such as giardia and single cell amoeba, known to cause illnesses but go undetected in routine testing.

Long Island Analytical also found a carcinogen, methylene chloride, 2,180% greater than the accepted limit in two fountains at Capobianco Field.

None of this was known to public representatives at the meeting because RIOC gave them no advance information, settling instead on a four page packet there was little chance to review before Rosenthal rushed the meeting forward.

Neither were these findings disclosed by RIOC or the Department of Health during their presentations.

Not until leaving RIOC's offices were Ceruzzi, Rindler and Shinozaki given the full Long Island Analytical report, and that material came from The Daily, not RIOC. Farance had obtained it in a FOIL request and shared it.

Common Council's Spines Stiffen

Clued in to how RIOC pitched a knuckleball by them at the meeting, the Common Council soon rose up in protest, rebuking RIOC for not disclosing vital material

It was a breath of fresh air from an advocacy organization that had become benign.

Backed into a corner, RIOC did two things, one potentially useful, the other near the top of the list for the worst RIOC.

First, the good news.

RIOC scheduled a follow up meeting for October 10th and has invited the media, including The Daily, this time. We'll be there, prepared to ask questions.

But then, apparently unable to let a good deed fly solo, RIOC attacked the community.

Still unwilling to admit hazards stretching back over decades from supplying parks and playgrounds with water unfit for human consumption, RIOC posted a statement wherever it controlled space, on Facebook and in at least one letter to a State legislator, claiming that "certain residents" were "misrepresenting" results from their tests.

RIOC's since been unable to justify that claim, but its statement repeated misrepresentations of its own, repeating a falsehood attributed to a State health official that 'no coliforms" were found and that all fountains were shut off when, in reality, the very fountains found to have excess bacteria have been running without interruption throughout the crisis.

As things stand today, with the Residents Association gearing up for elections in November, a rare opportunity exists for candidates and sitting members to flex their muscle.

The newly enlivened Common Council has helped put RIOC on the defensive. The groups future depends on its ability to sustain the momentum as the State fights back against resident representatives.

 

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