TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—For those that know her, Leslie Schill wears several hats. She’s Vice Chair of the Planning Advisory Board for Tompkins County, Director of Campus Planning at Cornell University, a 13-year resident of Fall Creek, and an expert soccer player. To that repertoire, she may add another title — Tompkins County Legislator for District 2.
Schill announced her candidacy Jan. 15. Approximately 10 years into her role as a public official, Schill has made strides in the Tompkins County Planning Department, Cleaner Greener Southern Tier Regional Plan, plus other trail and road planning projects. Schill also spearheaded the District of Columbia government’s Department of Parks and Recreation planning and design, a team that instated recreation facilities and city park restorations, when she previously lived there.
If elected, she would fill the position vacated by Anna Kelles, who recently began her tenure in the New York State Assembly. The special election is scheduled for March 23.
Addressing public health issues is integral to Schill’s campaign, she said. Implementing safety measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and mental health services are two promises for community members’ physical health. But addressing racial inequality, strengthening public schools, certifying environmental health and safety, and creating affordable housing also fall under the umbrella of her campaign.
To tackle COVID-19, Schill said she plans to focus on widespread vaccinations of the community, starting by lobbying New York state politicians who can then lobby the federal government for more vaccine doses. Positive messaging to the community about the COVID-19 vaccine’s safety will also be crucial, she said.
“Working on logistics, resources and creative management to implement a fast and safe rollout of the COVID vaccine in the county, that would be my very top priority because it is going to impact every other issue and initiative that we want to address,” she said. “I’m all about silver linings in 2021. 2020 was so difficult in so many ways, politically, in communities, and from a health perspective, how can we find silver linings out of what we’ve developed?”
As for how she would strengthen mental health services, Schill said she supports combining the Departments of Health and Mental Health at the county level, a process that is underway currently. During the pandemic, she said she recognized the importance of telemedicine, or virtual appointments for individuals or families looking to avoid the public space of a doctor’s office during a pandemic. Continued virtual care will be imperative even after the pandemic, Schill said. Critical to this aspect of her platform is access to broadband internet service for all members of the community as well.
“I think that cross-pollinating both the resources as well as the expertise and even the administration (…) can really streamline and help people,” Schill said. “COVID required us to find new ways of providing services. Maybe we need to keep those ways and just add them as part of our repertoire.”
Scott Whitham — principal of Whitham Planning & Design, a landscape and architecture company in Ithaca, said he first met Schill through her work at Cornell. He said her leadership yielded real change, and she was able to balance collaborators’ interests with action in a way he thinks would translate naturally to a legislative role.
“It’s interesting when you talk about public health because that covers really so much,” he said. “To have a platform of public health really does feel like the spectrum itself. Economic health, whether it’s personal or at the scale of a community, affects all those other types of health: emotional and certainly environmental. So the idea of health, I think, is a wonderful platform, because it is itself so inclusive.”
Schill said that recent initiatives to reimagine public safety in Ithaca are excellent strides to bring the community and local government together, but not the final solution. She said that jail reform, finding specific alternative solutions to incarceration, will be an essential step forward.
“Racism is a public health crisis,” she said. “Making sure that all the voices are at the table (…) and (making) sure that they identify the issues that are happening, that we’re listening, that we’re all working on this together, I would say, is critical.”
Hillary Boucher, Schill’s former neighbor and a current resident of Fall Creek, said she has seen Schill’s intelligence and motivation firsthand. Both mothers to daughters the same age, Boucher said Schill often extended help to support other families who needed childcare.
“It’s been a hard year,” Boucher said. “She sort of has one of those attitudes where it’s like, ‘We’re going to make the best of this, and we’re going to get through it,’ and it’s something I really admire about her.”