* Archived, Guy Midkiff on RIRA COUNCIL

[Roosevelt Island's Community Newspaper]
[]
May 2, 1997
RIRA Using FOIL to Fix RIOC
Freedom of Information Law Provides Leverage
They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.

Slowly, RIRA is moving against RIOC on a broad front.

Several members of the Common Council of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA), weary and annoyed at what they see as short shrift, are assembling a kit of legal and public relations tools to use against RIOC, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.

The kit includes possible legal action, demonstrations, publicity, investigative reporting, and an aggressive program of legislative relations. But one tactic – use of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) – has taken an early lead in producing results with useful potential. This report deals primarily with that part of the effort.

The overall effort shapes up as an urgent drive to make RIOC more responsive to the will of the residents. The stakes, as those involved see it, are being heard and heeded in the governance of the place where they live.

For a start, they want Dr. Jerome Blue, President of RIOC, to see the Residents Association differently – not as “one of 56 organizations on the Island,” as he has repeatedly called it – but as residents’ elected representatives with an important role in guiding the Island as it moves toward development of Southtown. Southtown could double the Island’s population.

[Picture]
Opening day at Trellis, in RIRA’s unofficial cabinet room: From left, clockwise, RIRA President Patrick Stewart, Audrey Berman of the Westview/Island House Task Force, Guy Midkiff, Karen Ingenthron, Frank Farance, Joan Brooks. Nellie Negrin is hidden behind Farance.

[Picture]

The Residents Association is an elected body, its President chosen in an Island-wide referendum, its Common Council consisting of representatives elected from the Island’s residential buildings. Though RIRA is modeled after a City Council, it has no formally constituted status in law. RIOC, on the other hand, is a creation of the State of New York, a public benefit corporation formally charged with developing and maintaining the Island. Every past Island administrator has consulted with RIRA and sought a harmonious working relationship, but nothing in law or administrative regulation compels Jerry Blue to do the same. Were this a matter of might vs right, RIRA might lay claim to right, but RIOC indisputably has the might.

FOIL

[Picture]
Guy Midkiff
One Marine, very pissed off

The RIRA activity, which has gathered momentum slowly since the election of Patrick Stewart as President last November, is getting up a head of steam by exercising its rights – or trying to – under the Freedom of Information law, a federal statute aimed at guaranteeing citizens open and responsive government. Armed with a knowledge of that law and its touchpoints, RIRA Vice President for Government Relations Guy Midkiff has filed requests for a variety of RIOC documents.

In response, RIOC has erected a kind of Maginot Line that appears to consist primarily of frustrating RIRA’s attempts to access information. As Midkiff describes it, “They want to treat us like a pesky mosquito buzzing around their head, swat usa couple of times, and have us go away. What it shows is their callous contempt for us.”

Instead of going away, RIRA is building a case against RIOC, documenting the corporation’s evasion and squirming.

Midkiff exhibits genuine anger when describing RIOC’s responses to the FOIL filings. An ex-Marine, he says “This is not what I was prepared to fight and die for. The same zeal I gave to my mission in the Corps, I’m giving to this.” These days, Midkiff flies for TWA. His flights to Cairo, London, Paris, and Milan leave him with stretches of time between trips that he has committed to his volunteer service on the Common Council, and to this effort.

Disclosure Required The current tug of war began January 31 with a formal FOIL request for “names of all current owners with store fronts on Roosevelt Island, the lease rates… being charged and the actual amounts… paid [in] 1996.”

Whether the leases and payment records contain any smoking guns or smoldering fuses is unknown. It doesn’t matter, because under FOIL any citizen can request the information and RIOC is required to provide it, with limited exceptions. Indeed, RIOC has provided some information, but those pressing for more see only a delaying action.

After the January 31 filing, Midkiff and RIRA President Stewart plodded through two months of what they see as serial stonewalling by RIOC: refusal to allow copying of documents, missed appointments, incomplete information, space unavailable to examine documents, or claimed scheduling conflicts that interrupted their use of a conference room after only eight minutes of document review. Moreover, Midkiff says the documents provided were incomplete: no records for some businesses, and no payment histories at all.

In short, whether or not they expected to find something awry in RIOC’s lease agreements with Island merchants, Midkiff and Stewart were building a chronology of RIOC’s reluctance to be responsive under the Freedom of Information statute.

By the end of March, frustrated and feeling Richter-scale anger, Midkiff wrote to the State’s Committee on Open Government, presenting the chronology and asking “Where does [RIRA] go from here?”

The Committee staff’s answer was available by mid-April. Though based “solely upon the information presented in your correspondence,” it suggests strongly that RIOC’s handling of the FOIL requests is not reasonable reluctance, but violation of law. (RIOC was asked for comment on Tuesday, but had provided none by press time.)

As a general matter,” wrote the Executive Director of the Committee, “the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access… all records of an agency are available, except [where the law provides] grounds for denial. From my perspective… the records [you have requested] must be disclosed.”

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This means RIOC is required to provide information on the qualifications of its employees, including licnses, educational backgrounds, and experience. RIRA President Stewart speculates that the material might reveal nepotism or padding of the RIOC payroll. Midkiff puts it more graphically: “If there’s slime under a stone, I’m going to find it. And clean it.”

The next formal step for RIRA is a court proceeding in which RIOC would be obliged to demonstrate that it’s acting properly in denying access to the records it has withheld. “But I’m not in a rush to escalate this to court,” Midkiff says. “I’m going to give them every chance to explain themselves. We have used up our administrative remedies; we can go to court. Or we can go to Pataki. Maybe the Governor will comply with the law.”

Midkiff’s FOIL effort is the most fully-shaped of the tools being put to work. But RIRA also seeks to turn out a large resident audience for the next RIOC Board meeting, scheduled for 7:00 pm Thursday (May 8). RIOC has moved the meeting from the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the usual meeting place, to the Sportspark, under the Queensboro Bridge next to the tennis bubbles. RIRA has placed an ad, which appears in this issue of The WIRE, demanding answers to a variety of questions which, by implication, suggest serious mismanagement of Roosevelt Island by RIOC.

[Picture]
Patrick Stewart

“There are some Constitutional issues involved here,” says Patrick Stewart. “It starts with the City’s original deal leasing the Island to the State of New York based on the State’s agreement to do certain things. The State has defaulted on those agreements to maintain and enhance the Island’s infrastructure and quality of life, and to increase the value of Roosevelt Island.”

While recognizing the difficulties of a State budget put together by a Governor determined to reduce expenditures, Stewart and others are angered that RIOC failed even to ask for a line in the State budget. They see that as a basic function of the Island’s chief administrator. But Jerome Blue, President of RIOC, claims the Island is now capable of the self-funding Governor George Pataki wants, and appears to believe his job is to do the Governor’s bidding rather than to present Islanders’ budget wishes to the Governor.

Asked if RIRA’s structure as an organization of unpaid volunteer representatives has the horsepower to take on RIOC and the State, Patrick Stewart says “The horsepower is there. It’s begging to be harnessed, but it’s not yet in full gear.

“Certain people may not want to go down the exact same path,” Stewart continues, “but we all have the same goal. There are the obvious things that divide people, but all-in-all, we’re pulling together. On a zero to ten scale, we’re probably at a five. As we go along, that will get better.”

One opportunity to see the nature of what’s forming up to take on RIOC will be the RIOC Board’s meeting Thursday evening at 7:00.

Editorial cartoon

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