Monday, July 27, 2009

RIRA President's Report on Roosevelt Island Reunion, Blackwell Park Master Plan, Red Bus, Parking & Public Safety Town Hall Meeting

RIRA President Farance at Public Safety Town Hall Meeting

RIRA President Frank Farance sends the following report to Roosevelt Island residents.
1. Reunion of young Island residents, circa 1976-1985. "If you remember ice skating next to Westview, if you remember swimming in the Island House pool ..." the invitation read. It's being covered in this issue of The WIRE. As a "kid" (age 21), I remember all my musician friends on the island. I was a mentor for younger musicians, who became mentors themselves, and so on. On some Saturday mornings, we'd pull together keyboards, guitars, amplifiers, and drums, and play at the back of Motorgate — in those days, Motorgate was far away from disturbing any residential building. On June 27, we musicians returned for a reunion jam. Ah, the pleasure of playing Mustang Sally on a summer day. Thanks to Mike Smith and his staff at RIOC for making everything go perfectly. And thanks to RIOC President Steve Shane for suggesting and supporting Southpoint as the venue.

2. RIOC tea party for Blackwell Park renovation. Rosina Abramson, RIOC Vice President of Planning and Inter-Governmental Affairs, has continued her work on developing a master plan for the park. She held an informal "tea party" on July 15 to present Lee Weintraub of LWLA landscape architects, who will be working with a team of talented designers and community specialists, including Alyce Russo (former RIOC development director) of Schall & Russo Planning Works, BKSK Architects, Jane Clark Chermayeff, and other creative team members (some of whom designed the science playground at the Queens Children's Museum). Abramson says, "We hope, collectively, to develop a master plan incorporating community aspirations regarding the kind of recreation and pastoral area Blackwell Park can be". Great idea, and off to a good start.

3. Two steps forward, one step back on red bus schedule. The experiments in the red bus schedule have been successful in the late morning. The buses arrive and depart reliably and consistently (at Octagon: 9:55, 10:10, 10:25, etc.). Unfortunately, it appears that RIOC has discontinued this regular schedule. (I will investigate.) Although it is summer vacation for schools, I will continue to prod RIOC to work on experiments and improvements in the red bus schedule for the evening rush and nighttime.

4. RIOC eliminates 22% of Main Street parking, residents not consulted, school drop-off is impossible. One day last week, RIOC removed the parking spots in front of PS/IS 217 and made them No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking. That's 12 spots of the 55 available that affect the 6,000+ residents and contractors of the WIRE buildings. RIOC did not consult with the school. The head custodian, made aware of the parking loss, mused that RIOC should have had a town meeting to get community input. Steve Shane defended the actions as replacing signs that were previously stolen (photo evidence back to 2004 shows there were no restrictions) and as Department of Transportation (DOT) guidance (which he didn't cite) on making spots available to the Board of Education (PS 85 on 57th Street and Second Avenue still has muni-meter parking, contrary to Shane). In fact, RIOC already has 10 parking spots reserved for PS/IS 217 in the alley next to 2-4 River Road. RIOC has backtracked slightly; they've laser-printed a sign to tape over the existing No Standing sign during school hours. Now drop-off and pick-up are possible. In short: RIOC didn't consult with anyone, the school didn't ask for it, DOT doesn't require it, RIOC has already assigned school parking in the alley, and parking was already scarce on Main Street. How is RIOC serving the community?

5. RIRA town meeting on Public Safety. RIRA held a town meeting Wednesday night for community input on Public Safety. We had a good turnout, including PSD Director Guerra, his colleagues from the 19th and 114th precincts, a representative from the Manhattan District Attorney's office, and Assemblymember Micah Kellner. All noted that this kind of community forum was a good thing to do.

We had approximately 25 comments and detailed follow-up discussions: the May 30 Capobianco Field incident (the case was dismissed), an explanation of the Trespass Program in Eastwood (don't loiter), the question of a curfew for children (there is none), the legality of taking pictures of Public Safety (it is legal), why Public Safety officers don't respond to reports of drivers going through stop signs (officer needs to personally witness the infraction, not take the word of a resident).

At my request, Guerra started the evening with a presentation on the dos & don'ts of children and adults interacting with Public Safety. Initially, residents were miffed that they were being told how to behave. (They had complaints about Public Safety's behavior.) However, by the end of the meeting, Guerra's presentation made for a good reference point and a good reference document for everyone.

After the meeting, Fernando Martinez, RIOC's Vice President of Operations, suggested several collaborative task forces on Public Safety, transportation, etc., to include RIOC, RIRA (which includes all residents), and other stakeholders. This is a very good sign of cooperation, and I hope we can all take advantage of it.

6. RIRA Public Safety Committee Chair investigates May 30 baseball field incident. Erin Feely-Nahem, committee chair elected by the RIRA Common Council, has completed her investigation. Here is a summary of her findings:

— PSD Officer Payne tried to de-escalate the conflict, as reported by numerous witnesses.

— PSD Officer Toro escalated the conflict by continually threatening people with arrest.

— PSD Director Guerra's investigation was one-sided. He interviewed only PSD officers and no other witnesses, including island residents. Guerra did receive a statement from the off-island baseball team, but only in response to Guerra's phone request. "My officers are getting a raw deal here" — clearly a self-serving statement from Guerra.

— The initial conflict was not just an island resident hurling slurs, but also involved one of the members of the off-island team.

Here's my analysis. Director Guerra gets a D-minus on his community approach and his investigation of this incident.

Days after the event (past the heat of the moment), Guerra's attitude was, "Either you're with us [RIOC/PSD] or you're against us". That attitude makes it impossible to hear genuine criticism about his organization. Guerra advocates a policy to RIOC execs and the RIOC general counsel that can be summarized as, "We're not giving any information out — you'll have to FOIL your requests".

Feely-Nahem's investigation was hampered and obstructed by Shane and Guerra. They refused to participate in the review. Shane claimed there was some legal action by Feely-Nahem, but that was not true (see below). Shane believes that, because Feely-Nahem doesn't have law enforcement experience, she can't do the investigation. By Shane's logic, only a police officer can objectively investigate another officer's actions — likewise, only police officers are qualified to be jurors in criminal and police misconduct cases.

I interviewed Feely-Nahem to better understand this so-called legal issue RIOC was raising. On June 14, 2008 her son (without cause) was manhandled by PS officers. Guerra threatened her and her husband after the event: "I can still arrest your son [at any time for the next year]". After they filed an intent to claim, the harassment stopped. The claim expired June 14 of this year, so there was no pending legal issue between Feely-Nahem and RIOC. I asked Shane to verify this with his general counsel.

In response to RIRA's request to meet with him, Guerra said that he would not share the paperwork because it was confidential. But Guerra gave a copy to another resident, Ron Schuppert, a retired detective and former head of the RIRA Public Safety Committee, whom RIOC wanted for the RIRA investigation instead of Feely-Nahem, the elected community representative. Guerra's story and PSD's confidentially policy are inconsistent.

City Councilmember Jessica Lappin and State Assemblymember Micah Kellner have expressed concern about PSD's actions in the May 30 incident. Kellner is working on legislation to have a citizens' review board for state entities. Clearly, RIOC is unable to provide oversight and to investigate itself, as Guerra's one-sided analysis shows, and as was already acknowledged by last November's 94% favorable resident response to a referendum on a Citizens' Review Board. Shane and Guerra will be the poster children for new state legislation.

During the past couple of weeks, I was inspired by many residents' comments (none of which Shane or Guerra chose to hear). Uniformly, the residents provided complete details, including some who acknowledged their own and their neighbors' imperfect behavior. The honesty was refreshing; residents clearly understood what was at stake.

Although I have not yet had a chance to discuss this with my fellow RIRA Common Council members, here are my thoughts on RIOC/PSD staff involved. On Officer Payne: He acted professionally, which is consistent with my personal experience with him. On Officer Toro: I think he needs training on handling these kinds of situations. I can't suggest anything stronger because, without further background on this officer (which Guerra refused to supply), we don't know if Toro's actions were a one-time event in his life (and in the heat of the moment), a regular daily occurrence, or something in between.

On Director Guerra: He gets my harshest criticism. He knows what a proper review process should be (but chose a one-sided, self-serving approach), he knows how to conduct an investigation (but chose differently — something NYPD wouldn't do), and he is expert on the process (but chose not to use his expertise). Parroting Guerra's comments about Mr. Mansour's infraction: I believe Guerra is a good person, but had a lapse in judgment at this moment.

On RIOC President Shane: He certainly has the knowledge and experience to recognize the poor quality of Guerra's investigation, yet he accepted it.

RIOC has suspended an employee (an island resident and parent) because he asked Officer Toro not to arrest Mr. Mansour. The employee was asked to sign a statement and a waiver. At a weekend barbeque, if an employee of the City of New York had (even worse) a shouting match with a neighborhood NYPD officer, do you think on Monday the employee would be suspended from work and forced to sign legal paperwork in order to keep his job? Of course not.

Likewise, RIOC and PSD have their own conflicts of interest. A wheelchair-bound island resident getting on the red bus tried to flip up his chair, but fell backwards, cracking his head. I witnessed this and called Public Safety, which then called for an ambulance. While waiting, officers asked the driver why he didn't put down the ramp. The driver made a mistake. Rather than reporting this honestly, both PSD officers reported that the passenger refused the ramp — protecting a fellow RIOC employee, protecting RIOC from liability, and shifting the blame to the passenger, who was in no condition to object. We wouldn't have this conflict of interest if it were NYPD.

RIRA's Public Safety Committee will hold a meeting in August to discuss recommendations on policy, procedure, and actions, which will be presented to the full RIRA Common Council meeting on September 9. The public is welcome to attend. Feely-Nahem wants the RIRA committee to be the long-term repository of residents' complaints and to provide more transparency to the residents – a good idea.

Finally, regardless of my criticisms of Public Safety, I still give them respect, which they deserve.
The RIRA President's message was also published as the RIRA column in the 7/25/09 Main Street WIRE.

More on the July 22 Public Safety Town Hall Meeting here.

An update to item 4 on the removal of the parking spots in front of PS/IS 217. A July 24 message from Mr. Farance to RIOC:
Dear Steve Shane and Fernando Martinez

Today, at PS/IS 217 I saw the parking signs back to metered parking. Thank you for considering the residents' needs.
Parking Sign in front of PS/IS 217