RIRA Needs Devoted Members, Not New Model

June 13, 2018

In the May 26 issue of The WIRE, Janet Falk proposed a new way to constitute the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA) Common Council: by enlisting the delegates from Island organizations. This is not a new idea, and I strongly advise against it. 


Years ago, the RIRA constitution included several organizations with the power to appoint a number of members to the Common Council. These delegates were elected by no one and represented a small number of constituents – often, only themselves. And years ago, the Common Council, as it was then constituted, voted to remove the organizations as voting members with the intention of making RIRA more democratic; a desperate need in this community. Organization members may run for RIRA office like any other resident and/or may be heard on specific issues during the public session that precedes each monthly meeting.


The creation of voting districts according to building complex, at the time RIRA incorporated in 1977, was modeled on the federal plan that parcels out congressional districts based on population, allowing legislators to seek election from their neighbors. Only the president and vice president of RIRA are elected Island-wide. 


As the Island residential community has expanded with new buildings, RIRA has worked to incorporate new tenants into the life of the Island and into the volunteerism that distinguishes this extraordinary place. Demanding a seat at the decision-making table has been paramount in the minds of many of us. As an example, as Southtown buildings came online, RIRA scheduled a meet-and-greet brunch in each new building to explain RIRA’s role. The result was more seats on the Common Council filled by Southtowners than from any other building complex.


This is a community administered by a Public Authority whose leaders are appointed by the Governor and whose paid staff don’t live on Roosevelt Island. Keep in mind that only the Residents’ Association represents – by election – this Island community and only this community. 


Our State and local elected politicians all represent much wider districts that include us. Even the resident directors of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) – once seven of nine Board members, and now just three of five remaining directors (with the other two representing State agencies) – are appointed by the Governor. They were appointed to four-year terms, all of which have expired years ago (see the RIOC bylaws and the laws creating RIOC, §3.2 of Ch. 899 of the Unconsolidated Laws of New York State, 1984). The requirement for a Board composed of a majority of Island residents, most of whom ran in Island-wide elections to be offered as the community’s choices to the Governor, was the result of 15 years of effort by members of RIRA and the Maple Tree Group, who recognized the crying need for representative government here. The current Governor has refused to continue the work of enhancing democratic representation that his three predecessors enabled.


So what should be done? If someone can devise a system equally or more inclusive of our population than the present one, and I would remind you that every resident is automatically a member of RIRA, let’s have that discussion. It’s true: the end of the two-year Council term often sees some attrition. When I first ran for RIRA president in 2000, the organization was receding into the woodwork; no money was being raised or being spent, and the only effort evident was in long, cantankerous monthly meetings, and no programs out on Main Street.


RIRA has commanded the respect of all our local pols by virtue of its mandate from the residents. 


RIRA is more than just the Cherry Blossom Festival, as terrific as that is. But the impetus must come from leadership. The current president does not attend RIOC Board meetings or committee meetings, and does not delegate anyone else to do so. The current president did not attend last November’s Cornell Town Hall, attended by all our elected reps and their staffs, and did not delegate that task, if only to be an official presence at the event. The current president blew an opportunity to celebrate RIRA in 2017, the 40th anniversary of its founding and incorporation. In 2007, I put on a whale of a 30th anniversary party to toot our own horn and generate interest in RIRA programs and issues. 


The current president has shown no initiative in continuing the RIRA blood drive, scheduled every Roosevelt Island Day since 2002. Fortunately, Roosevelt Island Senior Association Secretary Sherie Helstien picked up the slack as blood-drive captain, and the effort to sign up donors is well on its way. 


I have occasionally vented my criticisms and comments to President Escobar at the email address posted on the RIRA Column in these pages, but have never received so much as the courtesy of a reply. Have you?


The RIRA Nominating Committee will be looking for candidates for the November elections. What is required is energy, enthusiasm, initiative and, perhaps, the bottom-line requisite, the time to participate in more than just once-a-month meetings and to make a difference. If we don’t give a damn, who will?



Matthew Katz

Former RIRA President 

(2000-2004, 2006-2008, 2010-2012)



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