Protests Over Albany’s Role in Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island had long been run like a colony, with local issues like transportation, real estate development and even trash pickup controlled by a board whose leaders were appointed by Albany.

But recently Islanders managed to usher in a more democratic process with the support of former Govs. Elliot Spitzer and David Paterson. Beginning in 2008, the Island held its first elections for the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, voting in six Island residents to the board.

But resident leaders say they now fear that these advances are in jeopardy. Earlier this month, Jonathan Kalkin, a board member elected in 2008, was relieved of his position by Albany leaders, and replaced by Sal Ferrera, executive director of The Child School/Legacy High School, a private school on the island for special needs students.

On Wednesday, a few dozen people gathered on Third Avenue near the entrance to the Manhattan office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The residents carried signs with angry slogans accusing Governor Cuomo of squelching democracy on Roosevelt Island, which has roughly 15,000 residents.

Matt Katz, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, said the governor’s office nominated Mr. Ferrera, who was then confirmed by the Senate Finance Committee.

The appointment was done quietly and quickly without notifying the Island’s local elected officials, Mr. Katz said.

Mr. Katz said he feared that the governor’s action was an indication that Albany would similarly remove the board’s other five elected members. He said was disappointed that this was Governor Cuomo’s first major action regarding the island’s governance, adding that, “It’s as though we’re starting from scratch and there is no precedent.”

Reached by phone, Mr. Ferrera said he had submitted his application for a board position, with the understanding that the other board positions would be decided by elections.

“If I knew this was going to happen, I would not have taken the position, but at this point, I’m not going to withdraw,” he said. “No one told me this would be like going into a tempest.”

Reached for comment, a spokesman for the governor said the appointment was made at the recommendation of State Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican majority leader. Mr. Skelos’s office did not return calls for comment on Wednesday evening.

Gov. Cuomo’s spokesman said, “The administration is committed to true and fair representation of the Roosevelt Island community.”

Mr. Kalkin, an insurance and financial executive, was an active board member who is currently a principle figure in important — and controversial — real estate deals being handled by the board, two of which include affordable housing and filling vacant retail space on Main Street.

He said his ouster was “potentially dangerous for the island,” especially if other elected board members were similarly replaced.
“If this becomes the precedent, this will dissolve what Roosevelt Islanders have fought for,” he said.

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