ITHACA, N.Y.—Two candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to fill the Common Council seat Steven Smith stepped down from in August. They were interviewed on Wednesday by a Selection Committee.
Smith represented Ithaca’s 4th Ward, which encompasses much of college town, and the two candidates are both birds of the feather flocking in east Ithaca: Patrick Mehler, a 20 year old sophomore at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Katie Sims, Cornell class of 2020.
Since Smith resigned from his position before the end of his term, the process to fill his seat is more like a job application than an election. In accordance with the Common Council Rules and Procedures, candidates must submit an application and present themselves to a Selection Committee, which will make a recommendation to the Common Council. The candidate will be then put to a vote by the Council and, if approved by majority, serve the remainder of the term. In this case, until Dec. 2022.
The rules of procedure dictate that the Selection Committee will be formed by the Mayor; the Council member from the same Ward in which the vacancy was created, in this case Alderperson Graham Kerslick; and another Council member appointed by the Mayor, which was Alderperson Ducson Nguyen.
The committee interviewed each candidate for about half an hour, asking each the same set of questions.
Mehler was the first to go before the committee. If his 20 years of age create any hesitance, Mehler has a precedent in Myrick, who was elected to represent the 4th Ward at that very age.
When asked why he was interested in serving on Common Council, Mehler said that he wanted to rekindle the fire between the city and the students that cycle in and out of the community every year.
To build the bridge between the East Hill and Ithaca, Mehler said he would be drawing from his experience increasing voter turnout at Cornell. Mehler is the president and one of the founders of Cornell Votes, a student-led initiative to increase voter registration, voter turnout, and civic engagement among Cornellians. It’s not just a student government focused organization, but that role did translate into Mehler serving as the Director of Elections for the Cornell Student Assembly. He said while serving in that position, he was able to increase student voter turnout by 33 percent from a 50 year all time low.
On top of improving community engagement, Mehler told the Selection Committee that he wanted to see improvements made to the affordable housing stock in Ithaca’s 4th Ward, “to protect the students in the 4th Ward, but also the more permanent residents of the 4th Ward too.”
“What I absolutely would not want to see happen is folks being pushed out of their homes that their families have known for generations because students who can afford the high rent end up kicking them out,” he said.
Mehler told the Selection Committee he considered housing as one of the largest issues Ithaca is facing right now, but he also included the city’s messaging and outreach in that category. He cited a personal experience to ground this thought—no one in his immediate circle knew that Steven Smith had stepped down as their representative in the 4th Ward until a month after it happened, though it was widely reported.
To improve this gap in communication, Mehler said his outreach efforts would include office hours, hitting the streets, and making the time to talk with anyone who reached out to him.
“It’s a part time job that I plan to treat as full time,” Mehler said.
When asked what he loved most about the 4th Ward, Mehler evoked the dying words of the character Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, in the film Thor: Ragnarok. “Asgard is not a place. It is a people,” Mehler said. “The people are who make the 4th Ward, right?”
As a part of his closing statement, Mehler told the Selection Committee that he wanted to see more students getting involved with city government since they are an integral part of the community.
“I ask that you trust me, Patrick Mehler, to be your student and to be your 4th Ward Councilman.”
The other candidate before the Selection Committee is recent Cornell graduate Katie Sims, who currently works remotely as a social media specialist for 350, an international NGO that works to address climate change.
Sims told the Selection Committee that she applied for the position on Common Council because, while federal government can assign priorities and can move large amounts of money around, “its the local governments that are most responsive to the needs of the community and can make huge impacts on people’s day to day quality of life.”
However, Sims tried to make clear that she is not unrealistic about what she might accomplish with the truncated term she’s vying for. She said, “My goal is to be a thoughtful and responsive person on the council listening and bringing in information on things that are already rolling.”
Sims holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, and said she would like to focus on the green building policy that Ithaca has implemented, known as the Energy Code Supplement, and work to make that information accessible for small and large developers in Ithaca, as well as homeowners.
Pioneering green development is one of the biggest opportunities for Ithaca in Sims’ view. She said she also sees the city’s current economic development as a huge opportunity, with housing expanding and a population growing, but that this also constitutes one of the biggest challenges for Ithaca.
“The challenge is how to allow this expansion and create these economic benefits for the city while also making sure that people have a place to live who have lived here for a long time,” said Sims.
Among 4th Ward specific challenges, Sims cited the traffic and walking infrastructure, calling the district—especially Collegetown proper—a place that feels dangerous to bike in. She also noted that there is a dearth of parks and greenspace for residents of the 4th Ward to enjoy.
To connect with her potential constituents and learn what concerns them, Sims said she would leverage her skills as a digital organizer, but would start by connecting with groups that are already networked in the city.
Of everything in the 4th Ward, Sims said she loved the people most, as well as the sense of community she enjoys there.
In her closing statement to the Selection Committee, Sims said she would commit herself to working hard to educate herself on Common Council operations.
With both applicants interviewed by the Selection Committee, the next step in the procedure to fill the Common Council seat will be a public discussion between Myrick, and Alderpersons Nguyen and Kerslick. They’ll go through their thoughts on Mehler and Sims, and form a recommendation for the Common Council. That public meeting is supposed to be sometime next week, and the Council will vote on seating the recommendation during their Oct. 6 meating.
Just in time for budget season.