Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation could be pushed toward more transparency

State legislators are hoping 2019 will be the year they bring one city enclave off a legislative island.

Roosevelt Island’s governing body operates under unconsolidated laws, which makes finding its protocols relatively difficult, according to lawmakers who represent the area.

But now that Democrats control both legislative chambers, the electeds say they are optimistic about enacting a long-stalled measure to transfer the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) to the jurisdiction of the Public Authorities Law.

They say the measure, which has passed the Assembly but not the State Senate, would make it easier for residents to monitor RIOC and forge a foundation for transitioning the island toward a more self-governing model.

"Roosevelt Island is a tight-knit, diverse community, and resident representation on the RIOC board is critical to meeting the needs of this very special part of our city," State Sen. José Serrano, who represents the area, said in a statement. "For years we’ve been fighting for a stronger local presence on the board, and we are hopeful that a new Democratic Senate Majority and renewed attention to this bill will invite greater stakeholder feedback and ultimately result in full passage of this measure."

Four of RIOC’s nine seats are empty and the board does not always consult or consider residents’ preferences without prodding, residents said. The board automatically includes two state leaders, specifically the governor’s budget director and the commissioner of the Homes and Community Renewal agency, as well as seven members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has never appointed a board member and has permitted positions to go unfilled for years.

Ever since she ran for office in 2014, Assemb. Rebecca Seawright said island residents have described their relationship with RIOC as taxation without representation. She said Cuomo and the mayor, who may advise on two appointees, should cull board members from the elected representatives to the island’s civic group, the Roosevelt Island Residents Association. 

"The island residents were pretty frustrated that they didn’t have a voice in their local government," Seawright said. "RIOC basically runs the island so you could think of (RIOC President) Susan Rosenthal as being the mayor of Roosevelt Island. It’s the governing body that runs the local police force, which is not part of the NYPD. The Fire Department, for instance, they have a fire station there, but it’s an administrative branch."

Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens said, "We are recruiting and evaluating viable candidates with interests or ties to the island" while reviewing the legislation. 

Despite residents’ displeasure, RIOC has cut down trees, shut down water fountains without clearly communicating about their potential hazards and issued permits allowing sports leagues to use fields while limiting public access to the spaces, according to Scott Piro, who serves on two committees of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association.

"(Octagon Field) has typically been rented out every weekend and several weeknights to the ZOG intramural sports group," Piro said, noting that parents met with RIOC’s leader, who seemed ready to take steps to make the field more accessible. "Rosenthal agreed to the proposal, and then afterward, went around and did something else. Now there is going to be a fence, and it is going to be locked … There has definitely been lack of transparency."

RIOC did not return calls seeking to discuss issues raised by residents or the legislation.

Lynne Strong-Shinozaki, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, said she was optimistic about the legislation helping residents stay on top of RIOC activity, which she said has at times caught board members by surprise.

"Many of the islanders, when they realize that there’s been a decision made, they have to engage the elected officials in following up on what’s happening and why," said Strong-Shinozaki, whose husband is on the RIOC board. "What we are appreciative of is that the bill is an incremental step."

But Frank Farance, a member and former president of the residents association, said the legislation merely cleaned up the laws governing RIOC, without addressing residents’ frustrations. 

"The legislative change in (the bill) is, in essence, a Nothing Burger," Farance wrote in a note to lawmakers that highlighted a concern that a reference in the legislation to the now-defunct Board of Estimate may make it more difficult for residents to defend open space in court. 

Correction: A prior version of this story did not accurately describe how many RIOC seats are empty. 

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