Trouble Week Exposes Fault Lines

Is It Time for RISA To Dissolve?

Updated 18 weeks ago David Stone

Just a year after having its longtime contract to manage the Senior Center abruptly terminated, the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association saw its former Program Director plead guilty to grand larceny while the group itself engaged in an assault on what they feel is a competitor, not an associate organization serving our elderly.

Overflow crowds of seniors attending Carter Burden Network's First Anniversary Celebration. RISA chose not to attend.
Overflow crowds of seniors attending Carter Burden Network's First Anniversary Celebration. RISA chose not to attend.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In covering goings on at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center, I've been frustrated by the eagerness of so many who've approached me to complain about RISA - especially its behavior toward the Carter Burden Network - coupled with a general reticence to be quoted publicly.

After listening to more than a half-dozen users of the Center, including several who reached out with requests for meetings, I've come to the conclusion that RISA is as much feared as respected among the community it claims to serve.

Repeatedly, a history of retaliation against critics by RISA has been cited by seniors worried about being targeted.

July Exposes Longstanding Flaws at RISA

While the most raw exposure of RISA's deficiencies came with news of former Program Director Rema Townsend's guilty plea to grand larceny in connection with RISA's now terminated contract with the Department for the Aging to run the Senior Center, the most damaging failures in the long term were found in RISA's attempt to damage CBN by personally attacking the local Director, using overt falsehoods.

But before we get to that, readers may have missed Lorraine Altman's claim in a Letter to Editor of the Main Street WIRE that RISA includes in its membership "over 125 seniors."

In a WIRE column by Sherie Helstien in October, RISA said they had 185 members.

While the WIRE is no longer known for fact-checking or verifying claims published on its pages, both numbers strike my intuition as fudged, too easily divisible by 5.

What matters more, however, is that the fudging of membership numbers by RISA executives shows a decline in membership of roughly 30% in single year, coincident with CBN's emergence as a popular operator of the Senior Center.

A further look at the published comments of Helstien and Altman exposes a fissure in perceptions of RISA's mission.

"It was a huge relief when the burden of managing the RI Senior Center was lifted from RISA, as we can now devote ourselves to its primary purpose," wrote Helstien in October, last year, three months after CBN rescued vital Senior Center programs.

In July, Altman demands that, a year after being evicted in disgrace, RISA has "...every right to be consulted on issues, equipment, programming, etc." in her attack on Carter Burden's Director, Lisa Fernandez.

Apparently, they were relieved but still want a hand in running the place.

Rema Townsend Concerns

In a hash of change in the summer of 2016, RISA Program Director Rema Townsend was dismissed at DFTA's direction while RISA replaced all of its executive leadership with the exception of Barbara Parker who was voted in as President shortly before DFTA, which briefly took over Center management, nixed their contract.

DFTA has yet to fully explain the reasons for their action, but last week's guilty plea by Townsend is a crucial indication of what they suspected before making a dramatic move.

Of immediate concern is that, over a period of years, RISA went to both DFTA and RIOC for what they claimed were necessary funds to run the Senior Center while Townsend (and possibly others) siphoned off a substantial portion.

DFTA hopes to reclaim some of the missing cash, but surprisingly, RIOC has made no such efforts and has allocated even more Public Purpose Funds for RISA.

The group now fashions itself as "New RISA," but as one well-informed senior claims, "Barbara (Parker) worked closely with Rema and praised Rema for all she was doing while the board wanted to establish checks and balances."

Current RISA President Parker, who may have been deceived by Townsend as others were, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The Attack on Carter Burden Network

We've already covered the Case of the Purloined Pool Table, but briefly, in letters published in the Roosevelt Islander blog from RISA's Executive Board and by Lorraine Altman in the WIRE, the group attacked CBN and its local Director Lisa Fernandez for disposing of a seldom used pool table while creating a comfortable lounging area courtesy of chairs donated by Cornell Tech.

Lounge chairs donated by Cornell Tech replace a seldom used pool table.
Lounge chairs donated by Cornell Tech replace a seldom used pool table.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The pool table, for which Fernandez found a home at a youth center where it will be much better used, RISA says belonged to them. They fictitiously described it as a "large antique pool table."

Paperwork filed by both RISA and DFTA, within the last year, clearly shows that the pool table did not belong to RISA, but was property of the Carter Burden Network.

The organization, which seems addicted to attacking anyone or any group believed to be an opponent, manufactured a falsehood as a pretext for personally attacking a valued contributor to our community.

We can't afford to allow that for any reason.

Conclusion

Given the events of the last couple of weeks and RISA's inability to attract new members or to clearly identify its reasons for being, we hope that the group will take the high road for a change and gracefully dissolve itself, opening the way for a genuinely new group to step into the roles needed for enhancing the lives of our seniors.

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