Locals up in arms over appointment of nonresident to operating board
“I’ve lived here all my life and I no longer consider myself a New Yorker,” said Matthew Katz as he strolled along the East River on a recent sunny day. “I consider myself a Roosevelt Islander.”
Katz is the president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA). He and his wife moved to the island from the Upper East Side in 1989, into a Mitchell-Lama housing development that offered a more affordable alternative to the pricey neighborhoods they left behind. The island is home to both affordable and luxury housing residents and boasts an impressively diverse community, thanks in part to its proximity to the United Nations. It’s accessible only by the Roosevelt Island Bridge, which connects to Long Island City in Queens, via a stop on the F train or by the iconic tram that zips over the river to and from Manhattan. On a beautiful day, the views of New York are unparalleled.
What Katz describes “the feeling that, smack dab between Manhattan and Queens, the island is its own world” is a common sentiment among its approximately 13,000 residents. And they aren’t just thinking whimsically.
Roosevelt Island has always occupied an in-between space, both geographically and figuratively. In the 19th century it was called Blackwell’s Island and housed prisoners, mental patients and disease-ridden souls who were quarantined from the rest of the city’s population. The Gothic Revival-style Renwick Ruins, once a hospital for smallpox patients, now sit crumbling on the southern tip of the island. In the mid-20th century it was renamed Welfare Island and a few hospitals opened there, but by the ’60s it was largely unused and undeveloped.
Mayor John Lindsay convened a committee to figure out what to do with the place and the city ended up leasing the island to the state of New York for 99 years, pursuant to the state creating and executing a development plan. Now, while the area is politically a part of Manhattan, it is technically a state property. Day-to-day life on the island is controlled by a public benefit corporation called the Roosevelt Island Operating Committee (RIOC), which acts on behalf of the state. The president of RIOC is appointed by the governor, as is the nine-member board that oversees RIOC. In other words, the people who make the decisions about daily life on Roosevelt Island, from public safety (part of RIOC, since no NYPD precinct will report to the island) to garbage collection, parking and maintaining the seawall that holds everything up, are not elected by the people they represent.
“Things that would normally apply everywhere else in the city don’t [here], things like ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure], things that the City Council would have a say over,” said Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who represents the island. “None of these things apply on Roosevelt Island, and the community for a very long time felt that the corporation and the corporation’s board members weren’t accountable in any way.”
Residents remember the days not too long ago when the RIOC board consisted entirely of nonresidents.
“People were coming to the island once a month, sitting in a two-hour meeting and making decisions that would affect us for the rest of our lives. It’s not fair,” said Katz, who describes the majority of his job as RIRA’s president over the past 14 years as “convening meetings and convincing people to do things they don’t want to do.” The association holds public meetings and passes resolutions, but has no official power. “All RIRA has really is our credibility as the voice of the island and the ear of the island.”
For many years, the position of RIOC president, which is currently a $150,000-plus gig, as well as board positions, which are unpaid, went to pals of the governor and state legislators with no regard for whom the residents wanted to represent their interests. After a lot of pushback from the locals, the law was changed to require that five of the board members be residents of Roosevelt Island. On top of that, governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson both chose board members from groups of nominees presented to them as the winners of popular elections on the island. While it wasn’t a perfect democratic structure, it worked. Until Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed an outsider to the board this June.
Salvatore Ferrera lives in Brooklyn and has worked for the past year as the executive director of The Child Legacy High School on Roosevelt Island. He was nominated to the board by State Sen. Martin Golden, also of Brooklyn, with whom he has worked in his history as a teacher and principal. (Golden’s office did not return calls requesting a comment on the nomination.) According to Ferrera, his appointment was a surprise even to him, but it was a bigger surprise to many people on the island and the elected officials who represent them.
“I find it sort of frustrating that this was done, not only without the consultation of the residents, but I didn’t get a phone call,” said City Council Member Jessica Lappin of Ferrera’s appointment. She stresses that her objection has nothing to do with Ferrera personally, but thinks that the governor should have respected the process that had previously been followed.
“We worked for years to get a process in place that Spitzer agreed to back in 2001, to hold these island elections just to suggest people, to give the governor a sense of who people would like to see on the board, with the understanding that they would have to be background checked and vetted,” said Lappin.
Ferrera admits he barely knew anything about the island’s governing structure before he was appointed (which he said happened following a series of phone interviews with members of the governor’s staff) and that he had no idea how upset people would be at his appointment.
“If I had known it was going to be this contentious before, I never would have taken that first step,” said Ferrera. But he insists that his position as the head of a major school and his plans to build a new athletic and equestrian center will enhance the island. “I see myself coming in from the outside with a different perspective. I’m able to broker compromises,” he said.
Others feel that his nomination is a clear step backward. Dick Lutz, a journalist who edits the local paper The Wire, has editorialized that Ferrera should step down from the board.
“People have worked for 10 years to democratize the island and move as expeditiously as possible toward an elected RIOC board,” said Lutz. “What do people who don’t live on Roosevelt Island know about our specific day-to-day and long-term concerns? Do they take the subway into the city in the morning? Probably not – they’re coming the other way. Do they use the red bus [that transports people up and down the two-road island]? Chances are they don’t; they drive and they have private parking for their vehicles, most likely they don’t use the rather badly maintained parking structure here. You can go on and on, literally for hours, about all the issues that a nonresident would have absolutely no acquaintance with.”
Leslie Torres, the current president of RIOC, is another nonresident; she has been in the job for about a year. She replaced Steve Shane, who was ousted by the board. While the board won’t comment on its reason for firing Shane, residents have speculated that it was because he was slow to move on privatizing the Mitchell-Lama buildings and revitalizing the decrepit retail zone on the island.
Torres oversees about 135 staff members and says her years of experience working in state government (her last position with the Health and Hospitals Corporation earned just over $30,000 a year) is crucial to her position now.
“I’ve worked with tenant organizations and owner organizations. I’ve worked with both sides of the equation to be fair and equitable, navigating between the different interests of constituents,” said Torres. She said she’s aware that some board members advocate for residency requirements, but believes her experience is just as important. Some argue that it’s less important for the president of RIOC to be a resident, since the board ultimately checks how RIOC operates.
While Ferrera hopes the dust will settle and he’ll be able to contribute as a board member, others are hoping to change the laws so similar appointments will not be able to be made in the future. Kellner passed a law requiring board elections a few years ago, but Paterson vetoed it. He said that this time around, he and State Sen. Jose Serrano will go to the governor’s office first to hammer out the kinds of concessions they would be willing to make, like requiring approval from other elected officials for the appointments. Ultimately, though, he’d like to see much greater transparency and oversight of RIOC for the people who live on Roosevelt Island.
“They’re running a small town,” said Kellner. “This is not something that should be done in the shadows behind closed doors.”
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Blackwell's Island, Dick Lutz, Jessica Lappin, Leslie Torres, manhattan, Matthew Katz, Micah Kellner, RIOC, Roosevelt Island, Salvatore Ferrera, The Wire, upper east side, voter representation, Welfare Island
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