Seawright's New RIOC Law Passes Legislature, Will Democracy Follow?

*This article has been updated to reflect the passage of this bill in both houses.

A bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, described as a "good government clean-up bill" by her legislative counsel and serves to update what is known as The RIOC Act of 1984, has been passed in the Senate after being passed in the Assembly in February. It concerns the management and organizational structure of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC).

"I am proud to have introduced this bill and obtained passage in both houses. We worked closely with Senator José Serrano, the community, and the Roosevelt Island Residents Association Government Relations Committee to draft a bill that will support Roosevelt Islanders,"said Seawright.

For the most part, the new law doesn’t differ from the old one very much, and arguably, it’s what has stayed the same that is most problematic. Though Seawright does say; "I envision a Roosevelt Island that is self-governed so that services and programs are fully responsive to the needs of residents. The community must have a say in the decision-making process of how the Island is governed, there should be no taxation without representation."

The New Bill

The revised bill, Assembly Bill 316, provides updates to the enacting Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation legislation first created in 1984. It adds sexual orientation to the equal employment opportunity section of the law, mirroring the language in Assembly Bill 272, the expanded Equal Rights Amendment also sponsored by Seawright that has also passed the Assembly.

Assembly Member Seawright, center, in a pink scarf, holds up a sign at the Women's March with a group of Islanders

According to Rebecca Graham, Seawright’s legislative counsel, the RIOC Act was created in 1984 at a time when governance for Roosevelt Island was sought. The intent, according to the law, was to, “create on Roosevelt Island a new community which would retain and heighten the benefits of urban living while preserving a sense of scale and open space for Roosevelt Island residents and New York City as a whole.”

The original legislation was included in New York’s unconsolidated laws, the section for miscellaneous laws, leaving doubt as to whether it was subject to the public authorities law and making it more difficult for residents to hold RIOC accountable. "The clarification and update of RIOC laws is long overdue and it is important that the laws governing the corporation are added to the Public Authorities Law so anyone with interest can easily find its enabling statute," said Seawright.

Versions of the new bill have been introduced before, starting in 2013. Of the speed with which this one was passed, Graham said, “It’s a new world in Albany with new leadership.”

When passed, the revised law will be part of the public authorities law. It adds the new development subleases, including that for Rivercross, Manhattan Park, Hudson Related, and Octagon, that RIOC entered into in the years since the original laws were enacted, sets out what the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation is supposed to do, and limits RIOC's powers to “carrying out the development, management and operation of Roosevelt Island.”

What Else Does the Law Do?

For the most part, the new law doesn't differ much from the old version. Beyond establishing RIOC, the law also proscribes the composition of the board of directors. The law says the board must have nine members. Currently, the board has five members, all of whom have expired terms. (Members serve four year terms, except the commissioner and the director of the budget whose service lasts as long as they hold their respective offices). Most recently, the community held a referendum in 2016 to fill board seats, but neither the governor nor the mayor appointed any of those candidates, or any others of their own choosing. The board has not had the requisite amount of members since 2011.

The designated board chairperson is the commissioner of Housing and Community Renewal, currently RuthAnne Visnauskas. Alejandro Valella usually represents Visnauskas at the meetings as chair. Typically quiet, he became more visible and dominant during the meetings surrounding the youth center RFP last year. The Budget Director for the New York State Division of the Budget is also a member. Though the director of the budget is Robert F. Mujica, Erica Levendosky attends on his behalf.

The legislation also makes clear that elected public officials who represent Roosevelt Island shall also be representatives to the board of directors, albeit in a non-voting capacity. They have a right to sit at the table and join in the discussion, though it is doubtful that has ever happened.

Resident Board Members?

Of the seven public members, the law says that two shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the mayor, one of whom must be an Island resident. The remaining four members are also supposed to be residents, ensuring that a majority of board members are Island residents. This became law in 2002 under Governor George Pataki.

In June 2002, a law passed changing the composition of the board in favor of Islanders. This was the result of five years of advocacy by the Maple Tree Group, formed in 1997, to press for self-governance through Island elections of Island residents. Community leaders and the Island’s elected representatives offered mixed reactions to the deal. Alexander “Pete” Grannis, Assemblymember at the time, acknowledged the bill represents the first major change in governance on Roosevelt Island since the creation of RIOC but was disappointed in that “This does not move us toward self-governance.”

The bill also protected open spaces at the Blackwell, Southpoint, Octagon and Lighthouse Parks, but allowed for renovation of historic landmarks at those sites. Grannis had pushed for tougher open-space protection language in the bill. He had advocated the creation of a “State park land,” but the bill that passed prohibited only “further development or construction for other than park purposes” and specifically allowed renovation of historic landmarks within the defined areas.

“It seems to me the door has been left open for anything a developer might define it as,” then RIRA President Matthew Katz said presciently, voicing his opinion on the watered down bill. It would be six months later that the law’s protections of our open spaces was tested.

The Island’s Green and Open Spaces

The law also requires RIOC to hold a public hearing to provide an opportunity for residents to comment, prior to amending the General Development Plan (GDP) part of RIOC’s lease with the City.

In December 2002, RIOC sought to amend the GDP to build the Octagon and they did hold such a hearing. The proposed amendment to the GDP at the time would add new language allowing housing and parking spaces to be attached to “a landmark, the Octagon.” Another clause would amend the GDP to allow the new units to be added to the “approximately 5,000” apartments specified in the lease.

Front page of Main Street WIRE, Vol. 23 no. 8, Dec. 14, 2002

Though the letter of the law was followed by having this hearing, the spirit of the law – listening to the community’s objections and considering them – was decidedly not. From all accounts, the meeting was complete chaos. The issue for residents and politicians was that, first, the law had just been changed requiring five resident RIOC board members, but the board was not yet in compliance and did not have five resident RIOC board members. Additionally, the plan seemed to violate the open-spaces part of the law, in that the Octagon structure itself is a landmark; its restoration seemed to be a pretext to build more housing on the Island and was not deemed to be a good-faith effort to renovate the structure.

Representing City Council speaker Gifford Miller, Jessica Lappin read a statement saying that any amendments to the GDP should be voted on by a resident-controlled Board. “Consistent efforts at amending the GDP to enable RIOC to auction off open spaces to the highest bidder are unacceptable.” Amendments to the GDP, the statement said, “should be rare” and “should protect open space.”

Assemblymember Pete Grannis’ statement contended that the law in question permits only very limited development in Octagon Park because only the Octagon structure itself is a landmark. Grannis’s argument was that nothing other than the Octagon ruins can be considered a landmark, and that activities involving the Octagon Tower can only treat its surroundings as “open space.”

Margie Smith, RIRA’s vice president at the time, spoke as a resident when she said she thought claims that the project would increase the Island’s open space struck her as odd, saying that if the project area was simply cleaned up, the available open space would increase even more. David Bauer said, “This Island should not be for sale to the highest bidder.”

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney also disapproved. “I am deeply disturbed by the proposal... to appropriate open space for the development. I am even more troubled by RIOC’s apparent efforts to ram this proposal through before the RIOC Board is reconstituted in accordance with Chapter 493 [the new State law].”

Maloney added, “Local residents should participate in decisions regarding the geographic and financial future of the Island. The aggressive timetable, scant public notice [for the Thursday night hearing], minimal opportunity for the community to prepare, and the scramble to vote next [week] clearly reveals the Board’s determination to move forward before representatives of Island residents have the opportunity to take their seats on the Board.”

Permitting and Public Purpose Funds

The law empowers RIOC to charge rent for public facilities. This is an issue very much alive today. Community members are opposing what they deem to be excessive permitting. A RIRA petition on to keep the fields permit-free has over 1500 signatures. Excessive permitting might also conflict with the GPD’s definition of “open space.”

Providing financial assistance to not-for-profit corporations that provide direct services or benefits to the residents of Roosevelt Island is also part of the law. The assistance is not to exceed three per centum per annum of the operating budget of the corporation, and it must be subject to board approval.

The Public Purpose Fund was created in 1989. The developers of Manhattan Park paid the equivalent of a sales tax into the fund rather than paying actual sales tax on the construction materials. Over the years, grants from the fund have been awarded to numerous Island organizations, including Island Kids, the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, and others, but there has been no contribution similar to the Manhattan Park arrangement to replenish the fund.

Once that fund was depleted, in 2008, RIOC began contributing $100,000 to the Public Purpose Fund and tasked RIRA with making recommendations for its allocation. In December 2017, the Board of Directors approved its 2017-2018 Public Purpose Fund (PPF) grants, totaling $100,000, for nine Island non-profits and increased the pot for the following year’s PPF grants to $150,000. RIOC, with an operating budget for 2018-2019 of $51,203,000, provides nowhere near 3% toward not-for-profit corporations.

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