On Monday, Margie Smith stepped down from her seat on the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) Board of Directors, a position she has held for the last eight years. Four days later, fellow Board member Fay Christian announced her resignation. Christian had been on the board since 2008.
This week's resignations leave the nine-person Board with just five sitting members. Another seat has sat vacant since Island pediatrician, Dr. Katherine Grimm, stepped down in 2016.
Smith, a Rivercross resident, says she’s frustrated with what she sees as tightening State control over the Board tasked with governing the Island’s finances and operations, and feels philosophically out of step with recent Board decisions.
“We are just philosophically apart and have been for some time,” says Smith. “I was hoping, with the majority of the Board being residents, that would change over time. Eight years later it hasn’t.”
Fay Christian and Margie Smith
While Smith says she’s been considering stepping down for a while, recent conflicts within the Board left her discouraged about the potential for substantial change. She argues the Board has been stripped of much of its governing power and is regularly prevented from engaging effectively in Island issues. The picture she paints is of a Board increasingly expected to rubber stamp the issues put before them.
As an example, she points to a recent Governance Committee meeting, in which she advocated for changing the Corporation’s bylaws to reflect the power Smith says they should have: namely, the exclusive power to hire and fire RIOC officers. In the past, the governor has fired RIOC presidents without the Board’s consent. And while a Board majority is required to approve hires, Smith points out they are typically only given one choice, as was the case when RIOC President Susan Rosenthal was hired.
“I believe that if you have fiscal responsibility for something, you should have the authority to actually do the job,” she says. “I could not get any support [from other Board members] on that. Was it the proverbial straw? No. There were a whole lot of little straws. But when I was looking at the bylaws, I just had this feeling that nothing’s going to change.”
She says she’s also grown frustrated with the lack of information the Board is often provided before being expected to make decisions about Island finances and contracts. Recently, she says, RIOC staff suggested cutting the current 10-day requirement for providing Board materials prior to meetings to just three.
It hasn’t always been like this, according to Smith. During the Island House privatization process a few years ago, Smith says the Board was very involved at every stage.
“There were so many meetings, every couple of weeks, with constant updates: This is how close we’re getting. These are the open issues.” With the ongoing Westview negotiations, however, Smith says the Board has been left in the dark for two years. “Our only job will be to vote yes or no.”
In her view, “[The other Board members] have made the decision that we are not able to change this. It’s a political environment and they want to see what they can do working around that. I just can’t do that anymore. I feel like a phony. It’s embarrassing, quite frankly.”
Smith, who once served on the Rivercross board, says that experience was “much tougher” than the RIOC Board. She recalls that at Rivercross they’d receive three-ring binders in advance of their monthly meetings. “It was really, really a big deal every month. It should have been that times ten for RIOC.”
Answering to the Community
Smith also points out that her tenure was never intended to last this long without review.
“This isn’t the Supreme Court where there are lifetime appointments,” she says. Currently, RIOC Board members are appointed for four-year terms by the governor of New York with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Mayor of New York City is allowed to suggest two of the appointments, with only one of those required to be an Island resident. Smith, along with Board member Howard Polivy, was one of the Mayor’s appointees.
Currently all sitting board members’ terms have expired. Deputy press secretary for Mayor De Blasio, Jane Meyer says, they are currently working to fill the vacancy Smith left.
A better approach, says Smith, would be to have Board positions be subject to an Island-wide election.
“The reason to have elections is to vote people on and vote people off,” she says. “I really think it matters. How could you live in America and not believe in voting for the people that spend your money and make decisions for your quality of life?”
She argues regular elections would force her and all other Board members and prospective Board members to go out and talk to people to find out what they’re thinking. “You know so much about what’s going on when you have to run for office. I don’t know what the thinking is in not doing it that way. If this Board had to really answer to the community in an election, things would be different.”
To make her point, she brings up the Board’s recent decision to approve the temporary installation of a large RI letterform at the Island’s Tram Plaza. Prior to the meeting, the Roosevelt Island Residents Association passed a resolution unanimously opposing the sign, and dozens of residents filled out comments cards and sent emails to object.
“To ignore all of those emails, to ignore a unanimous resolution from RIRA, what’s the point?” asks Smith. “That’s where I say it’s more of a State agency than a community. Little things like that eat at you day after day. Then you wonder what you’re doing here.”
RIRA has held unofficial Island elections in the past to nominate Island residents for the Governor’s consideration. In 2017, a list of community-proposed nominees was voted on and forwarded to the governor. He has thus far declined to appoint any.
“The sad part is that the people running this place don’t have a vision for this place and the board isn’t forcing them to. It’s very frustrating to see what could be. It’s not brain surgery. There are things we could do very easily here.”
Smith says that she doesn’t plan to join any boards in the near future, but she will still work on bringing the FDR Hope Memorial to fruition, a memorial celebrating the President’s accomplishments within the context of his disability. The memorial is almost fully funded with only $270,000 still needed. “We will have the only memorial to a president who was disabled,” says Smith. “How spectacular is that! The sculpture is done and it’s beautiful.”
She also wants to continue her advocacy on behalf of the RIVAA gallery, and President Tad Sudol’s concept of an “Island of Art.” Smith says she’s eager to see Sudol’s large sculpture with the old Tram wheels in the decommissioned Motorgate escalators finally displayed.