ITHACA, N.Y.—Patrick Mehler has been appointed to fill the vacancy on the City of Ithaca’s Common Council, but not without some resistance or confusion.
Mehler was virtually sworn into the Common Council—a first in city government history—during a special meeting of the council on Wednesday, just before the regular meeting of Common Council. He will begin serving the Fourth Ward officially on Oct. 13, and his term will end in Dec. 2022.
The Fourth Ward is largely composed of Cornell University and Collegetown, and term by term shows a depressed voter turnout. Mehler is 20 and currently enrolled at Cornell University. He is the president and one of the founders of Cornell Votes, a student-led initiative to increase voter registration, voter turnout, and civic engagement in the Cornell Community. Mehler’s proven ability to engage voters was largely why he was chosen to fill the empty seat on the council.
The vacancy on council was left by the sudden resignation of former Alderperson Steven Smith on Aug. 9. The procedure to fill council vacancies resembles a process akin to filling a job opening—a process which does not come into play very often and which councilors and Mayor Svante Myrick acknowledged as imperfect on Wednesday.
To fill vacancies, a Selection Committee is formed to review applicants, interview them, and ultimately recommend one to the council. The procedure doesn’t explicitly say that interviewing applicants or discussing them be done transparently, although the Selection Committee did so through livestreams on YouTube. The process also doesn’t etch out any opportunity for public input on filling the vacant seat.
In the public hearing section of Wednesday’s special meeting, these criticisms were raised to the council. Mayor Svante Myrick responded to them by agreeing that, “…our Rules of Procedure are not quite not up to the task […] I ask if we could explore changing those Rules of Procedure to gather more public input to have a more thorough process.”
The other applicant to fill the vacancy, Katie Sims, saw a surge of support in the public hearing section of the meeting.
Five people spoke to the council pushing for them to vote against the committee’s recommendation for Mehler. Sims was one of the five, but she spoke of her qualifications and the initiatives she would like to be a part of, rather than diminishing Mehler’s qualifications.
Sims is a recent graduate of Cornell University with a degree in Environmental and Sustainability Science, and currently works remotely as a social media specialist for 350, an international NGO that’s mission is to address climate change.
Her supporters promoted her as someone who would be able to easily integrate into city initiatives like the Ithaca Green New Deal, and explain complex topics to the public.
Although support was passionate for Sims, it ultimately did not sway the council away from the Selection Committee’s recommendation, but it did make Alderperson Ducson Nguyen flip positions and vote for her. He had served on the Selection Committee and originally recommended Mehler.
Mehler was voted in 6 to 3. Had there been one more vote to turn down the recommendation of Mehler, the Selection Committee would have had to recommend another candidate, since six is technically the “majority vote” when the council is fully seated by 10 Alderpersons.
The Special Common Council Meeting was set up to allow Mehler to leap right into the work of city government Wednesday night. It would have technically circumvented another procedural rule, dictating that after a candidate is approved by the Common Council to fill a vacancy, they are supposed to be seated at the following meeting.
On Wednesday, Mehler would have voted on 5G legislation in Ithaca, allocating additional funds for repairs at the City’s Wastewater Treatment Facility, and more. But councilors ultimately decided that it would be better for him to get oriented, and start next week at the first 2022 budget meeting.
Mehler stayed through the entire four and half hour Common Council meeting on Wednesday, saying at the end that he’s looking forward to working with everyone in city government.
In a closing remark, Alderperson George McGonigal asked him, “Patrick, how long will it be before you can buy us a drink?”