Friday, May 20, 2022

Law Requiring Majority Of RIOC Directors And Chief Executive Officer To Be Roosevelt Island Residents Sponsored By Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright And State Senator Jose Serrano Passes NY State Legislature - Will Governor Hochul Sign It? Is It Good For Roosevelt Island?

The NY State Senate and NY State Assembly passed legislation earlier this month to require the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp (RIOC) Chief Executive Officer and a majority of RIOC Board of Directors (5 of 9 members) to be residents of Roosevelt Island. 

Screenshot of Video From April 2022 RIOC Board Meeting Videoconference
The legislation was sponsored by State Senator Jose Serrano and Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright. 

According to this May 11 Press Release from Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright: 

The New York State Legislature this week approved Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright's legislation giving residents a majority vote on the governing board of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.

The measure is part of a series of reforms to bring greater accountability and transparency to the board, which serves more than 12,000 residents. 

Under the Seawright legislation, five of the nine appointees to the board, and majority, must reside on the island. The governor appoints four resident board members. The mayor appoints one resident board member. 

“The Founding Fathers’ cry of “no taxation without representation” has somehow eluded the Board of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation,” said Seawright. "This long overdue reform will finally give residents a majority on the governing board to fight for a better Roosevelt Island.” 

State Senator José M. Serrano sponsored the companion bill in the Senate. The measure now moves to the desk of Governor Kathy Hochul for her signature. 

Other provisions of the Legislature's act would: 

  • Clarify the residency requirement for certain public appointments to the Board of Directors of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation and stipulate for their immediate resignation from the board upon the termination of such residency; 
  • Provide for the appointment of a successor within 60 days when a board vacancy occurs within an unexpired term; 
  • Require the posting of job vacancies on the corporation's website. 

The Legislature also approved a separate bill sponsored by Seawright and Serrano to require the corporation's Chief Executive Officer to reside on the island. A non-resident CEO would be required to relocate to the island within one year of appointment.

Asked if Governor Hochul will sign the legislation, a spokesperson replied:

Governor Hochul is reviewing the legislation.
I asked several Roosevelt Island residents involved with and knowledgeable about local governance issues their thoughts about the legislation.

Former RIOC Director and Chair of the RIOC Governance Committee Margie Smith said:

I think this new law is good, but there’s some confusion about what the bill actually does. For many years, the law has required that a majority of the board members be residents. That’s not new. The way around it has been that when a resident member quits, the seat stays empty and that can quickly shift the balance of power. So, the part of the bill that requires a replacement member be put in within 60 days is terrific. Also terrific is the part that requires a member who moves off the Island to resign. I love both of those. And, the requirement to post jobs on local sites is great.

However, I don’t agree with the requirement that a CEO must reside on the Island. I don’t think it’s necessary to live here in order to do a good job. We’ve had a couple of good CEOs who lived off Island. The job of CEO is extremely difficult. It requires a very unique skill set; someone with the ability to manage facilities, including grounds and transportation, people, the press, etc. It also requires a knowledge of how to maneuver within a political structure which can be very difficult. Requiring that the CEO reside on Roosevelt Island severely limits our pool of candidates to fill this position. And, a good CEO doesn’t have to live here to understand the community and do a good job. It requires a smart person who has the background to handle the mechanics of the job and the ability to work with the community to understand our needs.

The real issue is, and has always been, the fact that the residents DO NOT ELECT the members of the board. Having fought this fight for years, I recognize it’s next to impossible to get a bill passed that allows this and I applaud Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright and Senator Jose Serrano’s efforts. This bill is another step forward but we still have lots of work to do on getting ELECTED representation for the Island.

Former Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) Governance Committee Chair and current candidate for NY State Democratic Committeewoman Joyce Short said: 

I applaud the efforts Assembly Member Seawright and Senator Serrano are making to put residents on the RIOC Board and insure they are replaced when they no longer serve. But here's the problem even once this bill passes....

Having Roosevelt Islanders on the RIOC Board can only provide the elected government, that the Constitution guarantees, if those directors are elected by our community, not appointed and serving at the pleasure of the Governor- as is currently the case.

An important interest in my running for NY State Democratic Committeewoman is to insure that the flaws in our present "government by appointment" system, are corrected.

Our community is unique in that the state of NY re-inserts itself at the local level here on Roosevelt Island. It's one thing for a Public Benefit Corporation to manage the assets of the state. It's quite another for them to promulgate regulations for our residents...... and make up the laws as they go along.... like recently handcuffing a woman for a parking violation.

The land-leases our rents pay for cover the operating costs of the Island, not revenues from the State or City. RIOC's transparency failure and disregard for community input results from their being appointed, not elected to their positions.

While RIOC officers and Board members may try to do their best, the structure, itself, is a critical flaw that begs correction. 

Former RIRA President Matt Katz said:

I am absolutely blown away! 

I wonder if the recent incendiary letter by RIOC whistle-blowers wasn't the impetus for these monumental changes. 

Given that many of us have been working towards this for over twenty years and with succeeding generations of State representatives, frankly, I didn't expect these necessary and democratic provisions to be discussed, much less passed by the Legislature in Albany in my lifetime.. I am profoundly grateful to Assembly Member Seawright and Senator Serrano who were responsible for this accomplishment. Of course, Gov. Hochel must now sign this into law, but I can see no reason why she wouldn't. 

I hope that the Roosevelt Island Resident Association, which was responsible for seating many Island residents on the RIOC Board in past years, and through Island-wide elections, will take on the task of filling the vacant Board seats and---with Island residents. 

I'm dancing on air!!

RIRA Member Frank Farance said: 

This is just legislative hygiene, in case the law wasn't clear already.

There are existing laws on the books that RIOC doesn't comply with regarding directors, other than a first or second vacancy, I doubt this law will change the behavior of RIOC, the ABO, or the Governor.

Ho hum. What change do you expect in RIOC? RIOC has too many staff, many of them lack qualifications. For example, the PPF process was changed because of accounting and bookkeeping, but we need to outsource PPF - not have qualified people working for RIOC. So why would the posting of job vacancies help? Surely, I believe there should be a common posting, but many of the problems are caused by poor management and executive management at RIOC, not the transparency of job postings.

RIRA already reviewed this a couple years ago when Joyce Short told Seawright that the Island wanted this, but the RIRA Common Council had rejected this idea with many concerns, including: 

  1. the requirement diminishes the pool of viable candidates; 
  2. having an apartment on the Island doesn't mean that the CEO stays here as demonstrated by a prior RIOC President (Indelicato, I think); 
  3. having an apartment in one of the apartment buildings might create a conflict of interest (as demonstrated by a prior RIOC President); 
  4. the residency requirement will NOT require the RIOC President to give up their prior residence (very difficult housing market), nor will there Roosevelt Island residence become their Primary Residence, as it has other important consequences; and 
  5. the cost of the apartment (probably additional $60-80K per year) will be paid by RIOC, categorized as Public Purpose (reducing money spent directly on residents), paid by our ground leases and, thus, paid via our own rents and maintenance payments - surely that $60-80K could be better spent on the Island, such as greater PPF monies each year for Island organizations.

Rather than listen to a couple of out-of-touch Roosevelt-Island-Whisperers, legislators would do better, say, by engaging with elected representatives in RIRA or the community directly in a Town Hall meeting. I suggest dropping the residency requirement for the RIOC President/CEO.

Former RIRA member Sherie Helstien said:

Residents not chosen by the people over whom they make community decisions are no better or different than ones from off-Island. Period.

As previously reported, in 2010 then Governor David Patterson vetoed RIOC governance legislation that would have required all 7 Public Members of the Board to be Roosevelt Island residents. According to Governor Patterson's veto statement: 

... While the interest of Roosevelt Island residents may often coincide with those of the State and the City there may be instances in which they do not. Roosevelt Island represents a large investment by the State of New York and is a complex operation with responsibilities to both New York State and New York City. RIOC's enabling statute makes clear that it is to function in the public interest "for the benefit of the people of the state"...

Below is Governor Patterson's veto statement.

When all the RIOC Board seats are filled there are 9 Directors. Two are NY State Officials, representing the Commissioner of NY State Division of Homes and Community Renewal and the Director of NY State Division of the Budget. 

Seven of the nine are public members. Two of the public members are recommended by the NYC Mayor, one of whom must be a Roosevelt Island resident. 5 are appointed by the NY Governor, 4 of whom must be Roosevelt Island residents.

There are currently 3 vacant RIOC Director seats.

What will Governor Hochul do?