Ithaca, N.Y. — Julie Holcomb has been employed by the city of Ithaca since 1989. But as the daughter of former Ithaca mayor Edward J. Conley, she’s been working at City Hall for a good deal longer.
Ithaca Is Bluegrass Jan. 23-25
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“When I was in 3rd grade, I started living here,” says Holcomb, 51, now the city’s clerk, in an interview in her City Hall office on Wednesday.
Conley served as mayor of Ithaca from 1971 to 1979. Along with her two siblings, Holcomb used to spend time after school and on summer breaks helping dad with office work and fetching copies.
“There were times where my dad was supposed to be watching us and we’d have to come and sit through Common Council meetings,” Holcomb says. “We actually loved it.”
Holcomb has now served as Ithaca’s city clerk for 20 years and in the clerk’s office for 25 years. Coupled with a family history deeply rooted in Ithaca government, Holcomb now has a unique reservoir of knowledge about the city’s history, controversies and arcana on which to draw, according to local government officials.
“Julie is a living Ithaca legacy,” says Deb Mohlenhoff, a Common Council member representing Ithaca’s fifth ward.
“She is the only person that I can confidently state knows the answer to literally any question about the city, both its laws and its flaws. And if she doesn’t know the answer, she knows who does.”
Holcomb calls herself a “fourth-generation Ithacan of serving the city of Ithaca.” In addition to her mayoral father, her great-uncle was city mayor James Conley and she had an ancestor before that who was an Ithaca police commissioner.
Holcomb grew up in the city, went to Belle Sherman and Immaculate Conception, and graduated from Ithaca High School in 1981.
She took an immediate interest in her dad’s work. Holcomb remembers going to get pizza and french fries as a kid with her father, siblings and members of the Common Council after City Hall meetings. She was later a babysitter for the families of some Common Council members.
By the time she was hired as deputy city clerk at 24 in 1989, icebreakers weren’t necessary.
“I knew everybody” in City Hall, she says. “When I was hired in 1989, I knew almost all my co-workers already.”
A ‘great gatekeeper’
Mayors come and go, but Julie Holcomb remains.
Holcomb has now worked with five different mayoral administrations in Ithaca — John Gutenberger; Ben Nichols; Alan Cohen; Carolyn Peterson; and, now, Svante Myrick. Each comes in with new energy and new priorities, Holcomb says.
“They say, ‘We want to do this,’ and, ‘This is how it goes,’” Holcomb says. “We have the vantage point of, ‘As soon as you do this, you’re going to hear from this person and this person and this person.’”
Sometimes, Holcomb says, she’s able to identify potential pitfalls that mayors don’t realize.
“I think that experience becomes invaluable for mayoral administrations because they come and go,” she says. “It really helps us balance out our organization between the new and seasoned blood.”
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, praised Holcomb’s knowledge of the minutiae of city government.
“For the longest time in her role as city clerk, (Holcomb’s) been a key go-to person at City Hall for a lot of the nuts and bolts for working with the city,” he says.
“She’s been a great gatekeeper.”
A love of government
When Holcomb was a student, she thought she wanted to go into politics.
“I used to think I wanted to go into politics, that I was going to be the first woman mayor and … that I might be first woman president,” Holcomb says.
“Then I realized it’s not politics that I love. It’s government that I love.”
Holcomb now gets more than her share of government work: as city clerk, she is head of the office responsible for managing the agendas, meetings and minutes for city agencies and departments; for processing Freedom of Information Law requests; for managing records of the city cemetery and marriages; and for the city’s information technology.
Among the accomplishments she’s most proud of from her two decades in office, Holcomb says, is helping transform the city’s FOIL records to be processed more quickly and efficiently. That’s saved the city government a lot of time — and, therefore, the taxpayers a lot of money.
“Corporate america changes very fast — they have a lot of resources and we don’t,” she says. “We have to work really hard at change.”
Her other responsibilities have included working on Commons permitting, residential parking permits, and coordinating emergency communication with the police and fire departments.
“There’s a lot we’re involved in that has very little to do with the city clerk’s office, but there’s a gap and someone needs to figure out how to fill this gap,” Holcomb says.
Common Council members Seph Murtagh, who represents Ithaca’s second ward, called Holcomb a “phenomenal public servant” that Ithaca’s government was lucky to have.
“She performs work across so many different fronts — supervising staff, staffing public meetings, preparing legislation and processing marriage licenses,” Murtagh said in an email, “including my own!”