Tampering with Kids Lives and the Leadership Vacuum

State of the RIOC Mess: Roosevelt Island Youth Center

David Stone
RIOC Board Chair Alex Valella makes a break for the door, leaving RIOC's January Board meeting in chaos.
RIOC Board Chair Alex Valella makes a break for the door, leaving RIOC's January Board meeting in chaos.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

A reader wrote, "Towards the end (of the RIOC January Board Meeting), because I was all the way back and there was a protest, I could not hear very well if RIOC board members voted to adjourn the meeting or was the meeting adjourned by the chair alone, which was wrong and abuse of his power. Was there a motion to adjourn, table, or postpone? The whole meeting seemed to be in violation of procedures!" Let's try to clear this up.

It seemed immediately apparent that RIOC Chair Alex Valella, who went on to show that he's the first invertebrate to hold the position, planned all along to avoid a vote on the Youth Center award. Board Member Howard Polivy tipped his inside hand by agreeing with Valella before Valella explained what he wanted to do.

In short, a vigorous Facebook campaign instigated by the Queens-dominated PS/IS 217 PTA, designed to damage the reputation of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, convinced RIOC executives - or at least Valella - to step back from an already announced award. (Note, PTA President Erin Olavesen also tried to get the RI Parents' Network involved but was ignored by its membership.)

Valella allowed a succession of speakers to address the Board, each thinking their opinions might be considered. According to a count by the Roosevelt Islander, they came down 2 to 1 in favor of approving the scheduled award to RIYP. So had dueling email writing campaigns, according to Board Member Margie Smith.

And the Roosevelt Island Youth Program's supporters had more substantial content to offer. Many recalled positive personal experiences and admiration for longtime leader Charlie DeFino.

The PTA group's complaints registered as more of the he said/she said variety with little firsthand evidence.

One speaker, Adib Mansour, was constructive, offering a positive suggestion about settling widening community rifts by reengineering the Youth Center to gear it to older kids, thus extending services available over a wider range of beneficiaries.

None of it was new, to RIOC or to a contentious island divided by class. The same battle had been raging, off and on, since RIOC inexplicably decided to put Youth Center management out to bid for the first time in 40 years.

But after listening to all the speakers, Valella was so shaken he refused to publicly discuss his concerns with resident Board Members David Kraut and Margie Smith who wanted to put a stop to it by voting as scheduled, yes or no, on an award to RIYP.

Valella decided to cut and run instead. When he pulled the virtual eject button, it looked like a preplanned exercise.

And no, there was not any vote to adjourn or on anything else. Board Member David Kraut's motion that they vote on the contract award, Item 3 on the agenda, was simply blown off by Valella as he hotfooted it for the exit, pulling his coat up over his shoulders as he fled a shower of complaints.

"Alex isn't listening," someone shouted twice.

Hard to listen and run away at the same time.

"It is unbelievable that they changed the rules of the game in the middle," our reader continued. "They failed to follow through on the first RFP, they created a second RFP with an independent review committee but cannot follow through on this either.

"If they were so clean, they should not have withdrawn the first RFP. If they are so clean now, they should not have hesitated to vote on the RFP as they initiated the process. They seem like they will do nothing right because they do not have any backbone."

As Valella left things dangling, the public is free to reach whatever conclusions they like. To their credit, President and CEO Susan Rosenthal along with Vice President Shelton Haynes stayed behind to answer questions from audience members left milling in frustration and confusion. Kraut and Smith, both miffed by Valella's sudden exit, stuck around too.

Some are bound to think that they witnessed another ploy to avoid granting an award RIYP won for a second time, and others are likely to conclude that the day was saved through a strategic attack.

There were complaints that Valella, a nonresident who seems familiar with the community only from attending Board Meetings, dissed Youth Program supporters because most were young men and women of color.

In the aftermath, a disgusted RIYP Executive Director Charlie DeFino worried about how hard it would be to keep his employees motivated after such a discouraging second experience. Briefly, he considered closing down the Youth Program within days, taking Valella's cue and walking away.

We don't know what Valella's rationale was. He's stayed publicly silent, but late in the afternoon following a Board Meeting that ended in frustration and chaos, Rosenthal announced that RIOC would deal with the complaints by hiring a law firm to investigate, we assume, independently.

Why this hadn't been done before, if the PTA's assault had any credibility, was not explained.

With RIYP's 40 year history on the Island, 22 with DeFino at the helm, and with Public Safety Director Jack McManus, who coaches as a volunteer at RIYP, in the room, no reason was given for not asking McManus if he could verify any of the PTA's complaints.

Yesterday, the Youth Program's Board released a statement: “Executive Director Charlie DeFino has the full support of the RI Youth Program’s Board of Directors and we are confident that RIOC’s investigation will conclude that the allegations made are without merit.”

Rosenthal said she expects results to be available in time for the next RIOC Board Meeting on March 1st where, hopefully, the decision to award will be either made or set aside.

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