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Councilman Seph Murtagh

Seph Murtagh is a city councilman representing Ithaca’s 2nd ward, as well as a professor in Ithaca College’s writing department. A Tompkins County native, Murtagh returned to the area to earn his PhD at Cornell after studying abroad in Ireland. After spending some time reporting on government affairs for the Ithaca Times and discovering that he enjoyed the inner workings of city hall, Murtagh ran for and won the Common Council position he holds today.

In this episode, we touch on Murtagh’s roots in the area and what it was like to study literature in Ireland. Then we spend the bulk of the episode discussing some of the big issues facing Ithaca today, particularly the issues of police relations, housing costs, and future development.

Finally, we discuss the time Murtagh spent teaching prisoners at the Auburn Prison – the subject of his award-winning essay “A Hive of Mysterious Danger.

Below are 4 interesting snippets from the interview:

1 – What did Murtagh take away from his experiences teaching at Auburn Prison?

Murtagh was surprised by how well-behaved and eager to learn the inmates were. “I had my stereotypes about prison, like anybody does, I thought it would be kinda wild, that there may be some discipline problems… but the prisoners were almost excessively courteous. After class they’d always come up and shake my hand.”

The prisoners provided an ironic contrast to the Cornell students Murtagh was teaching at the time. “[Cornell students] are in their pajamas, they’re texting, it’s 8 o’clock in the morning and they’re like [zombie noise].

In studying the works of some major existentialist writers with the inmates, Murtagh came to appreciate the unique perspective of the incarcerated. “They were really into it. We read Nietzsche, Kafka, Dostoyevsky… I think they were able to draw some interesting parallels between the works we were reading and their own lives in the criminal justice system… there were insights they could make that the average college student couldn’t.”

2 – How did Murtagh become involved in politics?

Despite being on an academic track, Murtagh said he’d always had it in his head that he wanted to run for office someday, even though he wasn’t sure when it would happen. After finishing his graduate program at Cornell, he found himself job hunting at the height of the recession. “It was a horrible time to graduate,” he says, “and I think there were like two jobs in my field of academic expertise in all of North America.”

His job search led him to a position as staff organizer for the Working Families political party. ”To my dissertation committee’s horror, I piled all of my belongings into my car and drove to Rochester, where I was working out of this UAW hall. It was a pretty big cultural shift to go from studying English literature to working alongside these factory workers in Rochester.”

Murtagh said this experience was formative and laid the groundwork for his future run for Common Council when he returned home to Ithaca. “It was a really exciting time to be involved in politics. It was right around the time that Obama was campaigning for President, and seeing people’s enthusiasm and level of participation, it really sparked something in me.”

3 – What were the takeaways from the Community-Police relations meeting?

Murtagh expressed support for Mayor Svante Myrick’s “8-Point Plan” which included ideas such as body-mounted cameras for police officers and establishing a community outreach worker position, among other initiatives. Some of these things are already being implemented: “We already included in our budget funding to hire two more officers that would be more community-oriented officers – Community Action Team is the Chief’s term for it,” Murtagh reported.

Other ideas are still being formulated with the help of concerned citizens. Some of the ideas that stood out to Murtagh from this meeting involved finding ways to increase accountability for police officers and to help re-establish trust between the police and the community.

The handling of the vigil-turned-protest for Michael Brown at the end of last year may be a decent blueprint for rebuilding that trust. “[Ithaca police] got a lot of props for that incident. I would say that that kind of response is more common than people realize.” Murtagh says, “There are cases when they do some pretty admirable and even heroic things. Part of the frustration for the police, I think, is that they feel like the only time anyone talks about them is when they screw up or when there’s an incident involving race. You have to represent the good along with the bad.”

4 – What are Murtagh’s thoughts on Ithaca’s housing problem?

Affordable housing continues to be a major issue in Ithaca, Murtagh says. “Rents are pretty high in Ithaca, and there’s a need for adequate housing at all income levels, especially affordable housing,” he says. “I myself have done the crummy apartment tour in this town, and it’s not pretty. It can be really difficult for someone who’s not earning a lot of money to live in the city because it’s so expensive. Ideally we want to be in a situation where you can work a job in restaurant or a bar and afford to live downtown, and we still have a lot of work to do on that.”

The city needs more housing, Murtagh says, but there can be a lot standing in the way of that goal. Murtagh supports the idea of focusing increased density in the core of the city, but pursuing this goal is not always easy. Some people simply don’t want more people creating more traffic and noise near their homes. Geographically, there’s simply not always enough space to build. Beyond that, he says, “It has to do with people’s willingness to tolerate more development – and a certain type of development. That’s the biggest question: where does the development go?”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.