ITHACA, NY – A ceremony on Friday sending off two vital figures of Ithaca’s Common Council was a mix of good humored laughter and heartfelt adulation.

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The two members leaving the Council were Ellen McCollister, who had represented the 3rd Ward for six years and J.R. Clairborne, who had represented the 2nd Ward for ten.

The mayor and other Council members shared anecdotes – some inspiring, some humorous – about the outgoing members.

McCollister sent off in a blaze of chickens and kind words

McCollister, one of the staunchest opponents of the “backyard chickens” issue in Ithaca was on the receiving end of some good matured ribbing at the opening of the proceedings.

2nd Ward alderperson Seph Murtagh drew up a list of joke resolutions to put before council, including a resolution that all residents of Ithaca be required to keep chickens, and  “while we’re at it, let’s throw in goats too.” Another suggested resolutions was to construct a 30-story building that would be named, “McCollister’s Folly,” playing on her noted opposition to ostentatious development projects.

Departing 3rd Ward Alderperson Ellen McCollister (photo provided)

McCollister’s 3rd Ward colleague Donna Fleming also sent her off with a series of chicken memorabilia, including a wind up chicken and the “Backyard Chicken Fight” book.

The event transitioned to a more serious tone, with Mayor Svante Myrick calling McCollister “the center of gravity for the council.” He commended her for her work on the Collegetown Terrace development, saying that where many would seek to simply shut down the project, she had “difficult conversations with difficult people” and through powers of persuasion, turned it into a better project instead.

Related: Ithaca’s Common Council to lose official who led on key initiatives

4th Ward Alderperson Graham Kerslick listed off an abridged alphabet of McCollister’s virtues, calling her ambitious, balanced, consistent, diligent (sometimes to a fault), effective, forthright, good humored and insightful.

McCollister’s forthrightness was praised by many, with Kerslick noting how many times she would say, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but…” – then proceed to say the thing anyway.

The 4th Ward’s Stephen Smith referred to her as a master of “amicable disagreements.” Myrick echoed the sentiment, saying, “So many times I walked away smiling after talking with Ellen, only to realize later that… ‘Wait, she beat me in that argument.’”

For her part, McCollister expressed that politics, for her, were a means to an end. “I don’t really like politics. I like helping people,” she said.

Clairborne praised for diligence, selflessness, mentorship

J.R. Clairborne had been the longest serving member on the council and many of the other council members looked at him as an incredibly welcoming mentor. According to Clairborne, he’d worked with 15 department heads, 23 council members, 2 mayors, and a lot of staff members during his ten year tenure. With Clairborne’s departure, Mayor Myrick is now the longest serving member of the Council (including his stint as alderperson).

Murtagh noted that J.R. was a leader in pushing for change on key issues like affordable housing and the living wage, issues which are now at the forefront of Ithaca politics.

Outgoing 2nd Ward Alderperson J.R. Clairborne (center)

George McGonigal, alderperson for the 1st Ward, shared a story of how, early in McGonigal’s career, he faced a tough situation. There had just been a murder on Chestnut Hill and residents were concerned. McGonigal organized a meeting. Without expectation or invitation, Clairborne showed up at the meeting to provide much-needed support.

The Mayor also shared an anecdote, regarding a time when when a controversial issue had come to council and rules had dictated a certain approach, and the council seemed to “barreling in one direction,” despite concerns. Myrick, less sure of himself then, said that Clairborne was the one who spoke up and taught Myrick the valuable lesson of “not being afraid to ask the question that no one is asking” and “what it means to lead in the face of not just popular, but powerful opinion.”

Murtagh, who knew that Clairborne collected shot glasses, got him a custom made one as a parting gift. It featured the logo of the city and Clairborne’s campaign slogan, “Powered by the people” engraved on it.

In what he claims was an unplanned coincidence, Myrick also gave Clairborne a shot glass – a double, from the US Senate gift shop. Myrick said, “If we had more senators as selfless, who listen as intently, who serve out of love of service and not out of love of self as J.R., we’d be a better country.”

Incoming 3rd Ward Alderperson Rob Gearheart takes the oath of office.
Incoming 2nd Ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen takes the oath of office.

New members sworn in

After McCollister and Clairborne were dismissed, the new members of the Council were sworn in. Ducson Nguyen, who won Clairborne’s 2nd Ward seat and Rob Gearheart, who took over McCollister’s uncontested 3rd Ward seat.

The two were sworn in, as was the mayor for his second term. 5th Ward alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff was sworn in for a second time as acting mayor, while Seph Murtagh was sworn in as alternate acting mayor in place of McCollister, who previously held the position.

Myrick used his second inaugural address to praise the work of the council, as well as the work of City Clerk Julie Holcomb, City Attorney Ari Levine, and executive assistant Annie Sherman. He said that when he started as mayor four years ago, the city was in its worst fiscal shape in 30 years, downtown and city-wide infrastructure was decaying, and the Police Department and community were on poor terms.

He said that the group had – though it had been a struggle at times – made remarkable strides toward tackling those issues. “No one condescends less, panders less, politics less than this council. Over these four years, you’ve served with all the complexity, understanding and nuanced thinking a city of this caliber deserves.”

Myrick closed by outlining some of his plans for the future: continuing to deal with housing issues, offering better services without increasing taxes, to continue to improve the Police Department and to create a better environment for local businesses so that they can be encouraged to pay a living wage.

“I can’t say it’ll be easy,” he said, “but I can say that it will be worth it.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.