• Archived Works of Guy Midkiff

[Roosevelt Island's Community Newspaper]
May 8, 1997
Blue Catches Hell from Residents – Again
by Dick Lutz

Digital photography by Kurt Wittman
Another scene in the mini-rebellion of Roosevelt Island played out tonight.

Related materials:
RIOC Hikes Field Fees (cartoon)
Blue Backs Down on Field Fees
Town Meeting 3/27/97
Residents Moving Against RIOC
Editorial cartoon
Grannis Threatens Investigation
Editorial cartoon
Decay: Editorial cartoon

The occasion was a meeting of the Board of RIOC, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. Some two dozen residents, who had to sign up in advance for speaking time, peppered the Corporation’s President with angry questions about maintenance of the Island’s infrastructure, lost revenue opportunities, possible cutbacks in the schedule of the Tramway that serves the Island, RIOC’s reluctance to provide information requested under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and more. Residents in this community of actively involved people are peeved about being left out of the loop by the current RIOC administration. Few miss an opportunity to make known their unhappiness over the current administration’s failure to consult with them on plans for the Island.

The meeting was largely a reprise of a March 27 Town Meeting hosted by City Councilman Gifford Miller. RIOC President Dr. Jerome Blue was interrupted with hoots and angry shouts at both meetings. Tonight, however, it was his meeting, and he elected to hear all the residents’ questions before responding to any. In answering, he largely referred the audience to existing RIOC documents, promising to provide copies of the budget beyond the 17 on hand at the meeting.

Jerome Blue, Ph.D.

Blue is an appointee of New York State Governor George Pataki. The public benefit corporation he runs manages Roosevelt Island, which is leased by the State from the City as the location for a “new town” of mixed income residents. While past administrations have sought resident involvement, Blue’s administration is seen as secretive, even sneaky, in managing Island affairs. RIOC has appeared reluctant to respond to Islanders’ demands for information under FOIL, and has even insisted that the curious use the FOIL process to request relatively mundane information.


One resident who spoke tonight, Karen Ingenthron, read a letter from another Island resident who was away. “Your office severely obstructed the citizens right to FOIL on 5 separate occasions,” wrote Guy Midkiff, a Vice President of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA). “Will RIOC continue to obstruct RIRA’s inspection of FOIL documents?” The letter went on to point out that the State’s Committee on Open Government, a unit of the Department of State, has provided an opinion backing residents’ right to examine requested documents, and taking exception to RIOC’s failure to provide them. The reading of Midkiff’s letter was followed by sustained applause from most in the audience of 240.

Al Lewis

“Grandpa” Al Lewis, an actor generally called by the name of his character in the television series, “The Munsters,” took the microphone at the Island’s Sportspark and roused the audience with a simple statement of well-known fact: “I would like to inform all my neighbors here that RIOC is composed of all the people you see here [around the Board table]. There is nobody, not a single person on RIOC, that was elected to the board by the residents of Roosevelt Island. Not one.” To applause, he repeated, “Not one. Not one. Not one.”

Just three residents, all African-American, defended Blue, who is also Black. “Give the man a chance,” said Nellie Velez, a longtime resident who failed in a recent bid for the Presidency of the Residents Association. “The man has been here only eight months.” The rest of the audience, including other residents of color, were unanimous in their vehemence over Blue’s management of the Island. Their discontent goes back to Blue’s failure to request funds for the Island from the Governor. Pataki has said the Island should now be self- sufficient, though the original development plan anticipated that a population of 20,000 would be required for the Island to be self-supporting. Present population is just over 8,000.

Judy Berdy, who represents her building on the Common Council of the Residents Association, had mailed Blue (background) 18 questions before the meeting.

Residents generally place the blame for the current discord squarely on Blue and his management style. “I’m a 21-year resident,” said Leslie Goldman. “I’ve never had to FOIL for a public document, not in all that time. I used to be very active. I haven’t been active lately. But I came to the Town Meeting because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I found that what I was hearing is true. You treat us as children. If you would answer the questions you are asked, it would go a long way toward ameliorating the situation. The level of frustration is such that we have to question… We would like answers to the questions that are posed here. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should be able to find out what is happening here.” The audience applauded again.

When Blue referred residents to RIOC documents for answers to some of their questions, or suggested a visit to his Wednesday afternoon “open door” sessions, he was answered with shouts: “Give us some answers now. Now!” yelled one man. He was interrupted by an angry woman who shouted at Blue, “You should give in your resignation. It’s a shame!” The man then recovered the floor to continue “Give us some answers. We’re not asking for rocket science here. Give us some simple answers.”


Asked after the meeting what he sees as the cause of such hostility, Blue attributed it to “a lot of misinformation. We have to work harder at giving out more copies of the financial plan,” he said. “We’re going to have to work on trying to share that with community groups.”

Fay Vass, wife of resident RIOC Board member Ronald Vass, called the meeting “a waste of time. Dr. Blue should do his homework before he comes here,” she said, “to give us some answers.”

Residents disagree on whether Blue’s failure to connect with the Roosevelt Island community is a matter of style or, as some insist, ineptness. Those holding the latter view see him as woefully unqualified. (Blue’s office has refused to provide his resume to reporters.) “He doesn’t want to know the answers,” said one woman. “After eight months, he doesn’t even want to know about us and what this Island is all about.”

The feeling that Roosevelt Island is a special place runs deep in the community, nurtured by its unique access to Manhattan via the Roosevelt Island Tramway, yet its disconnection from a depersonalized city life over on the Manhattan “mainland.” In every respect except its status as part of Manhattan, Roosevelt Island is a small town: a place for families, with durable harmony in a mix of races and incomes. It’s a safe haven for foreign visitors; Kofi Annan lived here, just another international visitor-resident, until his election as Secretary-General of the United Nations. With just 8,000 residents, neighbors tend to know neighbors, and the more active participants in Island affairs tend to wear multiple hats. The Island has its uninvolved residents, of course, but there’s probably more activism and involvement on Roosevelt Island than in any community of comparable size in the country.

Patrick Stewart

The Governor zeroed out Roosevelt Island’s State funding in his budget proposal to the State Legislature, and that galvanized people here. When the community began to find its common voice, it also began to unite behind RIRA and its President, Patrick Stewart, elected last November 5. It was inevitable that Jerome Blue, as Pataki’s appointee, would take the resulting heat. Residents feel he took a dive to serve the Governor’s budget objectives, or perhaps even to punish the Island, which votes heavily Democratic, rather than fighting for, or even asking for essential funding to maintain the Island’s infrastructure and amenities.

Tim Johns
David Kraut

After the meeting, Kraut, who once served as President of the Residents Association, said “I’m sorry that residents feel so isolated from the process. It is clear to me that we’re falling down and not providing the bare minimum of information to ease their concerns.” Kraut observed that notice of Monday’s Southtown meeting is only now being posted, not giving residents adequate opportunity to schedule attendance.

As a result of the near-universal feeling of isolation and powerlessness, the Residents Association is mounting something of a campaign against Blue and RIOC, aimed at making the Island’s administration more responsive to its people. But Blue refuses to give any special weight to the elected Residents Association Common Council, invariably referring to the Association as “one of 56 organizations on the Island.” As Blue has continued to go his own way, even while claiming to want community input on Southtown and other matters, leaders here see a need to jump the fight to the Governor’s level, some offering the view that Blue is merely doing George Pataki’s bidding in management – many here would contend deliberate mismanagement – of the Island.

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Published in: on January 16, 2008 at 10:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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