ITHACA, N.Y. — City of Ithaca Common Council held its monthly meeting on Wednesday night, fielding demonstrators concerned with problems at the Ithaca Police Department, passing changes to the city’s towing policy as well as an unforeseen delay to a project set for the Commons due to a dispute between business owners and the developer.
The agenda for this month’s meeting can be found here.
Public comment — 3 minutes per person
Christine Barksdale and IPD
Most of the people in council chambers for the meeting were demonstrators protesting the Ithaca Police Department, including local figures and members of the Ithaca College Ujima Black Student Union, standing around the back of the room with signs in support of Christine Barksdale. The city moved to fire Barksdale in January after an investigation conducted by an outside law firm found a number of her cases had gone uninvestigated.
Dr. Nia Nunn, an associate professor in Education at Ithaca College and the president of the Southside Community Center’s Board of Directors, delivered passionate remarks on the treatment of Barksdale, a black woman and a strong presence in the Ithaca community, by IPD and City leadership.
“I’m here to strongly encourage those of you in positions of power — Common Council, Mayor Myrick — to dismiss the action that would lead to the arbitration regarding Christine Barksdale and to allow her to retire with dignity. The response to Christine, the dragging of her character and attack on her craft and passion, is obviously a scapegoat and retaliation because of her human rights complaint against Deputy Chief Joly. The initial press release was outrageously disappointing, followed by a series of newspaper and local tabloid articles illustrating inconsistencies with numbers and inaccurate descriptions of Christine. There has been no due process. This process and the purpose of this process has simply been to mutilate her name”
Nunn questioned why the policies, announced after the firing, had not already been in place. She also expressed dismay at the department’s handling of Barksdale’s backlog, reaching out to victims of cases that were not or were only partially investigated, saying officers were trying to convince victims to speak badly of Barksdale while re-traumatizing them. She went on to say that, if anyone should lose their jobs, it should be Chief of Police Dennis Nayor and Deputy Chief John Joly.
Green Street Buses
Also speaking during public comment was Brett Bossard, executive director at Cinemopolis.
Bossard spoke in opposition to permitting another bus carrier, this time a start-up called Flix Bus, to pick up and drop off on Green Street. He urged the city to instead, relocate the drop off and pick up point or make “dramatic improvements” to the location, which the city said it intended to do using the permitting fees collected from carriers when originally deciding on the Green Street location in the fall of 2018.
“This has been 18 months now, about, of this experiment, with — as nearby business operator can see — no improvements to the space, save a single metal bench chained to a tree and a stipe of paint on the sidewalk,” said Bossard. “We are a business that is in direct proximity to this experiment and the only one that is open at night, so we see the worst that this decision has to offer both residents and travelers.”
Before council was a vote on an ordinance for a Contingent Purchase Agreement with Jeff Rimland, head of the development team seeking to build on the eastern portion of the Green Street Garage.
The vote, while somewhat minor, would allow the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) to move forward in negotiations with Rimland on a Disposition and Development Agreement that would see the City of Ithaca sell the air rights it owns above the eastern portion of the garage to Rimland, contingent on Rimland coming up with mitigation plans for the businesses that would be displaced during construction.
The owners of several businesses that would be impacted spoke, telling council that they were only made aware of their displacement incidentally when one of the owners read it in Downtown Ithaca Alliance meeting minutes. According to the business owners, Rimland had only just begun reaching out to them to hammer out the details of the mitigation plans, and was encouraging owners not to retain attorney’s for the negotiations.
More on this in a little bit.
Privilege of the floor — City officials respond
Members of council expressed gratitude for the attendance of the demonstrators during privilege of the floor. A few expressed agreement, with Alderpersons Brock and McGonigal letting activists know that there are certainly allies of Barksdale’s in the city administration while others expressed frustration that the dialogue with the demonstrators could not be more transparent.
“I too want to say that I have always looked up to Christine,” said Mayor Svante Myrick. “Some of you have talked about what it was like to arrive in this community and to find an investigator like that and have her take you under her wing. She certainly did that for me and offered me, at times, valuable advice.”
The decision to fire Barksdale was ultimately Myrick’s and he found himself on the receiving end of pointed remarks more than once during public comment, but also made clear that it is not the city’s choice to keep quiet about the reasons behind the dismissal. And that if Barksdale wanted to avoid arbitration and retire, she could do that, the city does not have to release her.
“A lot’s been said, some that I strongly agree with. some of which, even if I do disagree with it, I am not in a position to rebut. In part, because it would be inappropriate other parts because we are legally restricted from talking about officer’s personnel records,” added Myrick. “These 50a New York State law restrictions have hindered the kind of accountability and transparency we want in our police departments.”
Alderperson Steve Smith, who served with Barksdale on the Southside Community Center Board of Directors, echoed Myrick’s frustration that a more fruitful conversation couldn’t be had with the demonstrators.
“I want everyone in the room to know, on this side of the table, not being legally allowed to talk about this and give you guys the two-way exchange that you deserve in this moment, does not feel good. I think most of the folks up here would like to have that dialogue but because of restrictions on this specific issue we cant,” said Smith. “I just ask that you be patient and you do watch the process. Keep an open mind, because there are folks I’ve been approached by some of them in my work life and in my community life, who have been impacted by this on the other side and I think there are some stories on that side that are worth listening to as well.”
It may be a little jarring for residents to hear, but the costs of car towing in the City of Ithaca has just doubled — from $100 to $200.
The council voted to update the city’s vehicle removal policy. The existing policy has been on the books for more than 10 years without an update.
“We have not raised these rates in 10 years and their operating costs have gone up,” said City Clerk Julie Conley Holcomb. “It’s new and it will need some tweaking. The tow operators have agreed that it would be appropriate to renegotiate these fees every three years.”
The updated policy can be found on page 31 of the agenda, here.
Another new bus company will be calling Green Street home for the foreseeable future.
Flix Bus, an upstart coach service, had its permit approved though not without several concerns being stated by members of council as to what is happening with all these trial periods for bus carriers.
OurBus, as part of a settlement with the city, is about to close out its trial period at Seneca and Tioga Streets. The move was, at least in part, meant to alleviate some of the growing pains being experienced on Green Street due to the congestion created by the busses. Members of the council seemed ready for some data to review how the change has gone, but will need to wait a little longer.
“While the trial period does end March 31, it does not end their use until we end it with a 30-day notice,” said Alderperson Rob Gearhart. “I do believe we are going to hear some data about this in an upcoming meeting, so if there is anything in particular that we would like to hear as a body to evaluate this, we should make that known to Eric (Hathaway, transportation engineer)”
Hathaway, who wrote to council regarding Flix Bus, says that the Green Street location can technically handle the increased stops, which represent a 17% increase in traffic. But with Flix Bus adding 33 stops to the 198 stops already being made by Greyhound, Coach USA and Trailways, carriers staying on schedule is crucial to the success of the location.
“If staff recommend that the trial location be made permanent, I will propose a resolution that Common Council fund a capital project for redesign of both the 131 E. Green Street and 130 E Seneca Street bus stops and nearby streetscape. The redesign would provide improved circulation for buses and accommodations for passengers while they wait for their ride,” said Hathaway in his note to common council.
City Attorney Ari Levine also clarified that, while the bus carrier permits include an auto-renew clause, keeping them valid indefinitely, common council has the authority to end any or all of the agreements with a 30-day notice to the carrier, should any problems arise.
There does not seem to be a quick fix for this problem. The most expedient plan being kicked around at City Hall is including a bus terminal in the planned redevelopment of the Seneca Street Garage, due to happen over the next few years, meaning that the headache caused by bus services may not have a quick or clean resolution.
Rimland Tower Delay
Those plans hit a snag on Wednesday as common councilors caught wind of problems between Rimland and the businesses that would be displaced by construction, as mentioned in the public comment section above.
Basically, for the IURA and then the city to approve the sale of the city’s air rights above the eastern portion of the parking garage, Rimland needed to come to acceptable terms with the businesses being displaced. The IURA made that clear to the developers at their Dec. 19 meeting. Despite that, the business owners reported to common council that Rimland had only reached out to them in the last few days, with one saying that Rimland had urged them to enter negotiations without an attorney.
IURA Director Nels Bohn reported to council that they were set to receive Rimland’s mitigation plans on March 12, but had been contacted with the news that the developers would not meet that benchmark.
“I told him that he should not risk a council of 10 people and an IURA of 5 people determining what is reasonable,” said Mayor Myrick of the conflict between the Rimland and his tenants. “He should make his business owners happy. Make them feel like it’s reasonable, because if he brings it to us to arbitrate a dispute in public between them, I don’t think it will go his way. It’s David versus Goliath and these are businesses that we know like and have been successful.”
For some members of council, hearing the allegation was enough and a motion was made to table the resolution. Some time was spent on the possibility of adding language to the resolution in hopes of making it clear to Rimland that these mitigation plans are a priority for the approval process. Business owners pointed to the fact that the IURA has already tried to do that at its Dec. 19 meeting.
As stated in the city charter, a transaction involving real property must pass council with 8 votes. At this advanced point in the discussion, it was clear that those 8 votes were not there and the resolution was tabled.