ITHACA, N.Y. – Curious about why dogs aren’t allowed on the Commons, if they ever will be, and how other cities handle similar questions? Wondering why your Syracuse neighbors get their sidewalks plowed while you’re still shoveling, and what it would cost to change that? Wish you could get your city government updates from Twitter?
These are some of the questions the City of Ithaca’s volunteer commissions are tackling. If you’re not aware of the work the commissions are doing, though, you’re not alone.
The City Administration Committee outlined new processes for streamlining commission work and communications at its first meeting of the year Wednesday.
The city’s volunteer boards and commissions got a major overhaul in 2018, with 12 groups whittled down to four umbrella commissions: Community Life; Mobility, Accessibility and Transportation; Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources; and Public Safety and Information.
Each is made up of resident volunteers, along with two Common Council liaisons and experts from city staff and the community who serve in advisory roles.
Feedback from the commissions’ first year in action suggested that unclear processes for communicating research requests and findings hampered coordination between commissioners, city staff and standing committees of Common Council, and made it more difficult to keep members of the public informed about commission projects.
“We want the commissions to be flexible and structured,” said Deb Mohlenhoff, chair of the City Administration Committee. “What we feel has been missing is formal documentation of commission action and requests to commissions.”
Mohlenhoff said it is not the City Administration Committee’s goal to add new layers of approvals that will delay commission work. Instead, she said she hopes new “Commission Project Plan” packets will streamline volunteers’ work by clarifying questions commissions should research, listing city resources at their disposal and setting timelines for deliverables.
The packets, which will be publicly available in commission agendas, should also help keep other Ithacans in the loop.
The committee walked through some examples Wednesday as they sent out their first formal project plans to the PSI, MAT and CL commissions: dogs on the Commons, a city social media policy, sidewalk snow removal, and a policy for flying symbolic flags.
“Currently dogs are not allowed on the Commons except by special permit, as regulated by § 157-15 in the City Code,” a new project plan for the PSI commission begins.
“There are arguments both for and against changing the code to allow dogs. The police have reported that when they ask dog owners to take their dogs off the Commons, many of them react negatively. They have also reported that signage prohibiting dogs are insufficient. Common Council has been reluctant to modify the current regulations out of concern that there could be problems if dogs are allowed on the Commons,” the plan reads in the project background and description section.
The plan goes on to specify topics the commission should research, city staff members available for assistance, stakeholders who should be consulted, and deliverables to bring back to the committee.
In the case of dogs on the Commons, the committee agreed they want the commission to bring back a policy recommendation, albeit non-binding, after researching safety and quality of life concerns related to “dog waste; dogs off leash; dog bites; fights among dogs; signage; dogs in businesses; dogs around food vendors.”
The committee also asked the commission to create a list of pros and cons for Common Council members to consider before taking their own positions on the subject.
While the committee voted unanimously to send its first four project plans out to commissions, the project plan form and communication processes are subject to change as commissioners weigh in with feedback.
Even as the process is tweaked, though, Ithacans can expect to be more informed this year as volunteers dig into the community’s burning questions.
Commission meetings are always open to the public. Meeting schedules are available on the city’s website.