After seven years of service on the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation Board of Directors – and 38 years on the Island – Margie Smith still speaks with a certain idealistic optimism when she talks about Roosevelt Island and its potential.
Like many of her colleagues on the Board, she doesn’t often speak to local media. But at committee and Board meetings, she is vocal, down-to-earth, and firm. She is driven by what she believes is possible. That includes the prospect of Islanders one day experiencing true self-governance, a closer relationship between RIOC and the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, and the need for new energy and ideas on the very board she sits on.
RIOC Board member Margie Smith
“Here [on the Island], we don’t have the same kind of representation as people in New York City who have elected their local officials,” explains Smith, who, as chair of RIOC’s Governance Committee, is responsible for telling the Governor the types of people that are desired for the Board. “There are two big things that the mayor and city council do: they spend your money, and decide on land use. But they can’t come across the river to us and tell us how to spend our money or decide on our land use.”
That’s because Roosevelt Island is operated by the State. “We don’t have local representation; that layer of representation is gone.”
Smith feels strongly that Islanders should be able to vote to elect local representatives. In our case, those representatives are RIOC board members. She points out that the election RIRA ran last week to nominate RIOC board members did not constitute a “real” election. Instead, she characterizes it as a “survey of who Islanders would want to see appointed to the Board.”
Ultimately the decision of who serves on the Board is up to the Governor. Smith says, “We respect that, but at least listen to who we would like. Here’s a list of people who most of the residents would like to see on the Board. It’s not fair of us to criticize [the Governor] without having given him a list of people we’ve voted for.”
As for the latest vote, Smith confirms that she asked to not be on the ballot.
“I think seven years is long enough for anybody’s term,” says Smith. “I think it’s time for other people to get a shot at this. I don’t think it’s good for the community to have the same people for all of these years.”
She says she also refused to run the first time elections were held, though she did run in a later election. As part of the Maple Tree Group (MTG), which advocated for local residents to be appointed to the Board, she says, “I didn’t want people to think that we did all of that work just so we could have the power. So nobody in MTG ran.”
The Mapletree Group
The Maple Tree Group was started by Rivercross resident and longtime Islander David Bauer many years ago. Smith joined the group in 1999. MTG eventiually became part of the Government Relations Committee of RIRA which has the same goals as, and consisted of many of the same members until recently.
She recalls that all of the Island’s buildings, at that time, were represented in the group: Matt Katz and Sherie Helstien for Manhattan Park; Laurence Brodsky for Westview; Vicki Feinmel and Lee Edelman for Island House; Joyce Short for Eastwood; and Linda Heimer, David Bauer, and Smith for Rivercross.
The group’s mission was to get residents elected to the RIOC Board, Smith says, and ultimately they convinced the governor to mandate five resident seats on the nine-member board. Smith characterizes it as, “a pretty good step.”
After all of that work, Smith says, “I can’t believe I’m in the United States of America and I have to explain why people should elect the people who represent them, spend their money, decide what will happen with their taxes, and make laws. I can’t believe I’m here doing that. What I hear back from people is that, ‘Well, we have local elections, we can elect the mayor, and we can elect our City Council people.’”
Smith believes that part of the reason many Islanders don’t get why last week’s vote was important is because our governing structure is just hard to understand.“We are neither fish nor fowl; we are a community governed by a State agency. It’s a crazy way to do it.”
She says, “We’ve talked to people in the governor’s office about this. We say to them, ‘If this were a good model, why isn’t every municipality set up like this, and have to report to you’? [Roosevelt Island] was never meant to be governed for 30 or 40 years like this. [This structure] was meant to set up the community and get it into the mainstream.”
Smith acknowledges that the Board could do better outreach.
“There’s so much misinformation; it makes me want to cringe. A lot of that is on RIOC; there’s no column in The WIRE anymore, and there’s nothing in the [Roosevelt Islander] blog,” Smith says. “I may not always say the right thing, but I think the public has a right to know. Everybody on the Island ought to know what we’re thinking when we make decisions.”
Smith disagrees with the perception by some that the Board merely approves what the governor wants. She says that, despite the fact that all of their appointments are expired, RIOC Board members do not feel beholden to the governor. “[RIOC Board members] are not afraid of losing their seats. They’re just not. They’ve all been on long enough that if they lose their seat, so be it.”
Instead, Smith said, a lot of their decision-making reflects a perceived state of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Voting in President Susan Rosenthal (and other presidents and officers, including former president, Charlene Indelicato) is an example Smith gives. The Board was only presented with one candidate for the job. The internal dialogue is, “Do I do this now, because if I don’t, I won’t be able to do anything better – I don’t want there to be no president, for example – but the motivation is not losing your seat.”
Of her colleagues on the Board who voted yes, Smith understands. She says, “They know the place has to keep on functioning. That’s why they vote yes. My quote is, ‘We don’t buy a lawnmower without three bids.’ We would be a ship without a captain [if we all voted no] but why don’t we split the work. I think it’s time we take a stand. But I get why the other guys don’t take a stand.”
“What I would have liked to do,” Smith says, referring to her membership on the RIOC Board, “is to get this place back to how it was when I first moved here in 1979. We used to call ourselves ‘The Epcot of New York.’ We were the experimental community.
“There could be spectacular things done on this Island if we had people who wanted to do the work. People would get excited if they thought they had some control. I think if we [RIOC] were more inclusive, if more RIRA people went to RIOC meetings, if there were more small committees like Vicki Feinmel’s with the church plaza, if we had more residents excited about things and thought they would happen, I’d stick around on the Board.”
She may be sticking around regardless. Despite not running to keep her board seat, Smith explains that, according to the law, “you are a Board member until you resign and you are replaced. Nothing in the law clarifies how long the governor has to replace you before you are free to go.” Until the governor replaces her with another resident, Smith is staying put.
RIOC Board Member Margie Smith: On the Issues
RIRA: “I would like to see RIRA more active. Gimme a feel for the pulse of the community, what do the people in your building think?RIRA should be coming to our committee meetings and making presentations. RIRA should be able to attend our Board meetings. We only have eight per year. Very few RIRA representatives show up.”
The Fields: “I don’t believe the fields should be rented out to everybody. I’ve never been in a community where the kids can’t just go out and play ball in the local field. We pay ground rent; to me that says, we’ve already rented [the field], for everybody... If there are leagues, we should be scheduling, but not charging.”
Retail: “We don’t have the foot traffic. [Hudson Related’s] David Kramer has tried everything he can think of to fill those stores. If they’re not going to be filled we have to put something in them to make them look better. Hudson Related pays us rent every year. They’ve changed realtors, they’ve done everything they can think of to fill those stores.”