April 6, 2013   33:14

Garden Group in a Tussle
Over Club’s Presidency

by Dick Lutz

Roosevelt Island’s normally quiet, low-profile Garden Club has found a way to become news.

There’s a dispute.  It might have been an internal club matter, had there not been a fire – possibly suspicious in origin – that destroyed a large tool shed in the community gardens area of Octagon Park.

The dust-up centers, for the moment, on who has – or doesn’t have – the right to vote and hold office in the club.  And it started last fall, according to the club’s longtime President, Ron Schuppert, when he made what he now calls a mistake.  As he explained it to The WIRE last week and to a meeting of the RIOC Board’s Operations Advisory Committee this week, he encouraged a Garden Club “associate,” April Ward, to run for the club’s presidency.

Ward did, and won.  She soon launched a program of innovations – border plots to bring in additional gardeners, for example – and what she views as reforms.  The reforms, she says, were (or are, depending on who is actually club president) intended to curb alleged late-night or overnight partying in the Community Garden, alleged misuse of the shed, some alleged favoritism, and other alleged improprieties.  Either her approach or the substance of her efforts riled a number of longtime members, including the long-ago co-founder of the club, Dr. Ali Schwayri.

Showdown at the RIOC Board Operations Advisory Committee meeting: Onthe right, April Ward, who claims she is president of the Garden Club by virtue of an election and a subsequent vote to confirm a membership decision. On the left, Ron Schuppert, the former president who claims the office on the grounds that Ward's election was invalid because she is not a member of the club, but is an associate instead. Schuppert is supported by Joyce Mincheff and Garden Club co-founder Ali Schwaryri (hards raised). Listening, and trying valiantly to stay out of the club's internal politics, is RIC Boad member and Operations Chair Michael Shinozaki (foreground), and behind him, RIOC Board member David Kraut (see lower photo), who didn't quite agree with Shinozaki's contention that he committee's responsibiity in the matter is limited to safety at the Community Gardens.

Schuppert reversed himself on the question of who could run for Garden Club president, with considerable support from others, including longtime resident Joyce Mincheff.  Mincheff’s interpretation of the club by-laws holds that “associate” is a category created to allow people without garden plots to help club members with their plots.

At Monday evening’s meeting of the RIOC Ops Committee, Schuppert, Mincheff, and Schwayri told RIOC Board members (most were there) that Ward “is not even a member of the club,” let alone its president – a claim in line with Mincheff’s interpretation of the by-laws, holding that only those with plots are members eligible to vote and hold club offices.

Ward, who also attended and spoke at the Ops meeting, is relying on Schuppert’s last-fall interpretation of the by-laws, which he now disowns.  She sees the “corrected” interpretation of the by-laws as a convenient dodge to thwart her reforms.  Club Secretary Karen Lee, who is allied with Schuppert, Mincheff, and Schwayri, told the meeting that Ward is holding the club’s email distribution system hostage, and, indeed, Ward used it to announce a meeting of the club for Wednesday night of this week.  Schuppert pointed out that associates were allowed to vote when Ward was elected president, which he now categorizes as a mistake based on his autumnal spur-of-the-moment failure to consider the by-laws when he encouraged Ward to seek the presidency.

RIOC Board member David Kraut – intensely interested in the gardens because his late wife was involved with the club – pointed out to others in the meeting that, in New York, when property is involved – even property as meager as a small community garden plot – New Yorkers can become, uhh... difficult (to substitute a term acceptable in a family-read publication).

RIOC Board member Michael Shinozaki, chairing the Ops meeting, ruled that the dispute was, indeed, a kind of property matter, and that his Ops committee would limit its interest to safety factors. 

Shinozaki takes a "not my problem" stance on the dispute over the Garden Club presidency as Kraut listens. In the background, April Ward makes a note as Howard Polivy, right, busies himself with something else, perhaps hoping to avoid the hot potato that Shinozaki is about to pass to him. Polivy chairs the RIOC Board's Real Estate Advisory Committee, which may ultimately be faced with deciding just how and whether to renew the club's hold on the Community Gardens area.
The Garden Club holds the community garden area by virtue of an agreement with RIOC, he said, so the real estate part of the dispute should be passed to the RIOC Board’s Real Estate Development Advisory Committee, chaired by Howard Polivy.  Polivy, who was present, ruefully acknowledged receipt of the hot potato.  (Polivy’s committee met Tuesday evening but took no position on the matter.)  After shunning the real estate question, Shinozaki said that the question of who is or isn’t Garden Club president rests with the club itself as an internal matter.

Schuppert says he has re-assumed the presidency under provisions of the organization by-laws, or, to put a fine technical point on it, that he has been president all along, because he has not yet been replaced by a legitimately elected president.  Schwayri and Mincheff (and others) support him in that.  For her part, Ward has at least a few supporters who endorse some or all of her efforts at reform and innovation.

Wednesday Night

The turmoil boiled over into the Wednesday night club meeting called by Ward and held at the Senior Center.  Schuppert showed up, along with a significant cadre of like thinkers, and took over the meeting while Ward chatted with two Public Safety Officers, urging them to expel attendees she had ruled out of order, who continued to resist her efforts to chair the session.

Schuppert called the meeting to order, quickly moved to adjourn it, got a heavy vote in favor of that, and essentially called a halt to the proceedings.  He told those who chose to remain that nothing they did – no votes taken – would have any legitimacy.

Once Schuppert’s supporters had vacated the meeting, Ward carried on with about a third of the attendees remaining, though not all were with her.  Karen Lee remained and continued to point out that Ward had no claim on the presidency of the organization.

At a Garden Club meeting held Wednesday night, Schuppert and his allies took over as Ward tried to chair the meeting she had called. Schuppert called for and got a vote to adjourn the session. Most of his supporters left, and Ward continued with a smaller group, which, she said on Thursday, voted to reaffirm her election of October, 2012.

The Fire

Oh, yes... the fire.

The shed that burned to ground level in a late-night blaze two weekends back was “possible arson,” in the view of Schwayri, he said at the Ops meeting.  It jetted the Garden Club into the Island’s online gossip stream.  While the fire was under investigation by the City’s Fire Marshal, the Community Garden was cordoned off.  The coincidence of a suspicious blaze at a time of turmoil in the otherwise long, quiet history of the Garden Club is, at a minimum, interesting.  Pinning down a cause is certain to be difficult, and the value of the property lost probably didn’t command an intense allocation of investigative resources by the Fire Marshal.

Still Closed

Even after the Fire Marshal released the garden premises, however, RIOC decided to keep the area closed, pending resolution of the question of who properly heads the Garden Club.

Schuppert says he appealed to Erica Spencer-EL of the RIOC staff, who apparently has some jurisdiction in the matter, asking her to allow gardeners to do their spring planting.  She declined.  When The WIRE attempted to verify this with RIOC Acting President Donald Lewis, a public relations functionary responded, “We expect the garden to be opened shortly. There appears to have been a miscommunication.”

Meantime, life on Roosevelt Island remains... interesting.

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