ENFIELD, N.Y. — The Enfield Town Board has appointed a Black councilperson to the board for the first time in the town’s history. 

James Ricks was sworn in Dec. 21 and filled the councilperson position that was left empty by Stephanie Redmond. Redmond, who is currently taking on the deputy and acting supervisor roles after former town supervisor Beth McGee resigned on Sept. 30, resigned as a councilperson at the town’s Dec. 9 meeting, citing the need to open a councilperson position for Ricks to join the board. Following a lengthy debate, members of the board unanimously voted to appoint Ricks to the board during a special meeting on Dec. 16. There are now four councilpersons on the board, but still no supervisor, and the months of infighting among members continued at the latest meeting even as Ricks was approved. 

Ricks did not respond to requests for comment regarding his appointment. He has lived in Enfield for over a decade, and last month, he submitted an application to fill the empty councilperson seat left by Mimi Mehaffey, who resigned in October. However, Councilperson Michael Miles was appointed to fill this position.

During the town’s November meeting, Ricks acknowledged that he does not have governmental experience, but as a Black man, would bring a diverse perspective to the board. In the Dec. 16 meeting, members of the community showed their support for Ricks’ appointment, citing his community engagement. Many of these individuals said they worked with Ricks in the capacity of Antiracists in Enfield, a group of community members who are committed to implementing anti-racist practices in the town. 

According to the most recent data from the Census Bureau, 94.1% of the town’s population identifies as white, and approximately 3.3% of Enfield’s total population identifies as Black. 

“He has played a key role in this group and has gained everyone’s respect as a thoughtful, compassionate and effective team leader,” Enfield resident Joanna Greene said. “He consistently demonstrates the kind of communication skills and critical thinking that board members should have. He has an even temper, a lot of humility and the ability to listen well and to respect those he disagrees with. I think these qualities would serve us all very well.”

“I also feel that James Ricks brings an important voice to the town as the first Black man to apply for the position on the board,” Dennis Hubbell, president of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, said. “He should be welcomed and given support to learn about the job and try it out. He can then make an educated decision as to whether he wishes to run for a seat in 2021. It will also give the town’s residents a chance to get to know him and vote based on more information if he chooses to run.”

Photo courtesy of Ellen Woods

“I’ve learned much from James and so appreciate his advice, his ability to observe people, events, circumstances and to share insight based on his experience as a passionate activist, a parent and grandparent, an American citizen and resident of a town where he hasn’t always felt safe or comfortable,” McGee said. “Should we celebrate 200 years with our heads up high if we cannot make this happen, or will it just be another celebration of white prosperity for yet another 200 years?”

Many of the public comments in support of Ricks also advocated for the appointment of Redmond to the role of supervisor. The debate of elevating Redmond to this position has been deadlocked over the last few months. Last month, Councilperson Robert Lynch refused to vote for Redmond’s appointment because he said he thinks that it should be an elected position. 

Redmond resigned as councilperson Dec. 9. Lynch attempted to convince Redmond to not resign as councilperson, saying that he respects her and works well with her. Redmond accused Lynch of not elevating her to supervisor because he wants to run for the position next year, to which he said he has not made a decision.

“Councilperson Lynch’s unwillingness to move me to an appointed Supervisor position has left the Town without a fully reconstituted board and in the precarious position of not having a Deputy Supervisor as secondary signer on Town bank accounts,” Redmond wrote in her resignation letter. “This is incredibly irresponsible and easily could create a situation where bills for the Town are not able to be signed if I am unavailable to sign them due to illness, especially during the COVID pandemic when many are being quarantined for weeks if not months. Additionally, James Ricks has expressed interest in becoming a board member. I feel it is essential that the Town of Enfield take the proactive steps of anti-racism and elect the first person of African-American descent to the board. By resigning my seat on the board, an opening becomes available. It is my sincerest desire to see James Ricks appointed to the board.”

Lynch said that he has had conversations with residents who would prefer to keep the seat open until next year’s election, or to hold a special election, the latter of which could be expensive for the town. Previously, the board had until Dec. 31, 2020 to make an appointment for the position of supervisor. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, the vacancy can only be filled by a special election, which can be proclaimed by the governor or by the courts by petition. However, at the Dec. 9 meeting, Miles said that the town’s counsel said that they are able to make a decision regarding the supervisor after Dec. 31. Because there is no time constraint now, Lynch advocated for waiting to make a supervisor appointment until the board members spoke with more constituents. 

“Each of us on this town board stands equally qualified to serve as supervisor,” Lynch said. “Not one of us, not one, is more fit than any other. Maybe that’s a good way to keep it. It keeps us humble. And yes, it also allows time for some of us to work out differences with other members of our governing team. Our constituents may not grasp the magnitude of the problem, but we on the board do. For me, resolving those differences professionally and as adults will greatly influence any vote I later cast.”

The debate of whether certain positions in Enfield should remain elected or be made appointed positions has been a matter of contention over the last few months. Two propositions were on the Town of Enfield’s ballot for the 2020 general election to change the elected positions of town clerk and highway superintendent to appointed positions. Many Enfield residents expressed their disapproval of the proposed laws at public hearings in July. Also in July, over 100 Enfield residents submitted a petition, titled “Enfield’s Democracy is in Danger,” to the board asking for the right to vote on the next town supervisor and councilperson in the November 2020 general election rather than McGee appointing one when she resigned, and that the positions of highway superintendent and town clerk remain elected positions.

Lynch first abstained from the vote to appoint Ricks to the board, instead suggesting to fill the position in January so members of the community have time to submit applications like they did to fill Mehaffey’s position. Lynch also raised concerns about Ricks’ appointment being a way to get Redmond appointed as town supervisor and asked him to abstain from any future supervisor votes.

Councilperson Virginia Bryant disagreed with Lynch.

“We’re not functional,” she said. “We’re dealing with all these issues that are undercurrents., and I’m not saying they’re not important, but they can’t be dealt with properly without a full board with people discussing properly in a professional way. I’m very disappointed at the situation right now.”

Miles raised concerns about postponing the decision until January because the board should be focusing on taxes. 

“I would say that this is a huge risk and danger because we have no supervisor, a non-voting acting supervisor and a razor thin board, and we’ve had multiple resignations or this fall,” Miles said. “We’re in the middle of a mass pandemic that we haven’t seen in a lifetime. I think that not moving forward on this quickly and beginning to reconstitute our board immediately while we have a community member that is willing to serve and has been given glowing reviews … is a huge risk not to move forward on this quickly.”

Miles also said that holding more special meetings puts more pressure on Town Clerk Ellen Woods. Woods said that there have been more special town board meetings this year than in past years, and she has repeatedly raised concerns regarding not being paid an appropriate wage for the amount of work she does. According to the 2021 adopted budget, the clerk’s salary is $22,000, a $2,000 increase from the previous year. The Enfield town clerk’s salary is less than the salaries of town clerks of other municipalities in the county. The board unanimously approved moving $614.80 from the town’s contingent account to pay for the town clerk office’s extra labor in the month of January to fulfill a Freedom of Information request an Enfield resident filed.

Ricks condemned the animosity among board members.

“You guys are smart, talented, pretty thorough from what I’ve seen,” Ricks said. “I don’t understand the vitriol. It seems like there’s something beneath the surface that you guys need to sit and talk about because it’s a really talented group. And remember, you said you wanted to hit the ground running. (…) I’m not seeing this as hitting the ground running. It’s like running right into a roadblock that some inter-group communication might be able to alleviate.”

Also this month, the board unanimously approved a three-year contract with the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company. The board also decided to postpone addressing the town’s information technology systems until after Feb. 28 to focus on the upcoming tax season. Additionally, a public board meeting is set for Jan. 6 at 7:15 p.m. regarding the planned solar farm on Applegate Road. Redmond also said that the New York State Department of Transportation will be looking into implementing sidewalks along Route 79.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.