TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Another year closer to the sun, or however that saying goes. The only thing to do is keep going!

Here are the five biggest stories in Tompkins County from 2021. Our year-end content will continue in the new year with a month-by-month recap that will include other coverage from the last year.

These five topics were selected from a blend of what attracted the most interest from our readers and what struck our senses as the most significant issues that arose during the last 365 days—this year was not actually longer than a normal year, stunningly.

We would not want to step on the feet of the guru Brian Crandall, so his rundown of the top five stories in Tompkins County and Ithaca development has been published separately here.

COVID-19: Part Deux

To take a moment—we’re sorry this is going to sound a lot like what you’ve heard over the last 21 months. It’s difficult to keep making reporting sound fresh when the same situation has loomed over the world, including Tompkins County, during that time frame.

There have been times of hope, like May 2021, when the vaccines were gaining momentum and masks looked like they were on their way out. But with every step of progress, there seems to be a banana peel waiting for the next step. Summer saw the expansion of vaccine eligibility to include children (at least, those above five years old), giving parents a small respite from anxiety that their unprotected children would be September saw the first deaths of fully vaccinated people in Tompkins County, though they were elderly.

A relatively quiet autumn was followed by a hellish end to the year. One of the nation’s first outbreaks of the Omicron variant took strong hold at Cornell University, leading the school to close a significant number of campus buildings to undergraduate students. Several school districts in the county also pivoted to online learning during the final week of classes before the holiday break in response to community spread.

There were slight, over-arching silver linings. For months, Tompkins County outpaced the rest of New York State in terms of vaccination rate, even after hitting a plateau that stymied the impressive growth. That vaccination rate, according to public health officials, has been crucial to mitigating some of the worst outcomes from the original virus, to the Delta variant, and now the Omicron variant. Since the vaccines became widely available, a date set by the health department as Feb. 1, 2021, there have been 21 deaths from COVID-19.

While demographic information is difficult to come by, the vast majority of those deaths have been among older adults, some in nursing homes, and 11 have been unvaccinated while 10 have been fully vaccinated, though all fully vaccinated have been people over 60. That’s among a population that is about 80 percent vaccinated, at this point.

A Reimagined Law Enforcement

While local sentiment remains mixed on the reform effort to this day, Mayor Svante Myrick introduced what GQ infamously called “the most ambitious effort yet to reform policing” in late February, in the rare local story that would play out consistently over the next several months and will continue well into 2022 and beyond.

In March 2021, after several hours of debate and discussion, the Reimagining Public Safety proposal was passed by the Tompkins County Legislature, before moving on for approval from the City of Ithaca Common Council with a decision due to New York State by April 1. The Council unanimously passed the resolution and submitted the proposal as part of the New York State Executive Order 203. The resolution outlines the city and county’s joint effort to gradually reform current law enforcement procedures including crisis intervention, SWAT and traffic law enforcement and the creation of a public safety dashboard, among other things.

Criticism from current IPD officers and police union representatives has included accusing the city of “union-busting” and undermining its employees, while activists on the left have claimed the city is doing no more than “rebranding” the department with a shiny new name. That name was eventually shortened to the “Department of Public Safety.”

Alderperson Laura Lewis suggested that the city and county join in “developing a comprehensive community policing and outreach plan to connect law enforcement and residents,” which the council passed. In April, the legislature’s Public Safety Committee passed a resolution to establish the Community Justice Center (CJC) as part of the Reimagining Public Safety plan. The CJC, a proposed body made up of city and county employees and allotted $144,380 for staffing and technology, will be tasked with guiding implementation of the Reimagining Public Safety plan including determining priorities, designing and managing implementation and managing overall coordination between the city, county and law enforcement.

In June, Eric Rosario was designated to lead the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group made up of individuals (which can be found at the bottom of this article*) selected by Mayor Svante Myrick and Schelley Mitchell-Nunn, the Ithaca city director of human resources, to coordinate and implement reforms approved by the council in April.

Autumn saw the introduction of the community feedback tool, as well as the presentation of the most significant data gathered by the working group so far, showing IPD’s staffing is suitable. In December, Monalita Smiley was named project director for the CJC, saying “The Community Justice Center is a unique approach to collaborating on public safety improvements and transparency, and I look forward to helping lead this collaborative process.”

By late January 2022, the working group and subcommittees will be wrapping up their respective work, Rosario and co-leader Karen Yearwood said. They will then complete a final written report by late February, and present publicly to the Common Council during its March meeting.

Political Turnover

Local politics can fly under the radar, particularly since the end of the Trump administration, which unfortunately spelled the end of some portion of the population’s attention span for involvement in government.

Yet this year saw some very intriguing turnover in both the City of Ithaca and the Tompkins County Legislature. Early in the year, a string of Alderpersons on Common Council announced they would not be seeking re-election, including longtime staples Seph Murtagh, Deb Mohlenoff, Donna Fleming and Graham Kerslick, while Steve Smith resigned in August to move to New York City with his wife. Cynthia Brock was the lone incumbent to run for re-election, and she successfully defended her seat.

In the city, 2021 also saw the introduction of the Solidarity Slate, which put candidates Jorge DeFendini and Phoebe Brown on Common Council. The slate, built around a mindset of emphasizing the policies as opposed to the actual people running, is easily the most progressive entity to have entered Ithaca politics in recent memory. It has roots in and connections to the Ithaca Tenants Union, the Ithaca Pantheras, Mutual Aid Tompkins and other local organizations that have emerged from the racial justice protests of 2020 and the community response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the power they’ve already secured, they seem primed to have a significant impact on Ithaca policy in the short- and long-term.

Meanwhile, the Tompkins County Legislature saw its own fair share of turnover. County Legislature Democratic icons Leslyn McBean-Clairborne and Martha Robertson both announced that they would end their tenures in county government, joined by Dave McKenna and Glenn Morey, both Republicans. The three were replaced by Travis Brooks, Greg Mezey, Randy Brown and Lee Shurtleff, respectively.

Crime spike

Was there actually a crime spike? It’s hard to say, and a definitive answer likely won’t be available until a few weeks into the new year when tallies are finished. It will also be interesting to see if the Ithaca Police Department publishes its annual crime report, a tradition started under former police chief Dennis Nayor, who retired in May.

As the Voice published in August, crime statistics from the first half of the year showed that crime was fairly consistent with prior years, if not lower than a normal year, according to the Ithaca Police Department’s own statistics. Those numbers seemed to betray the narrative that was being pushed by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, which turned up its social media presence to unforeseen levels. Most significantly, in the wake of Alan Godfrey’s death by homicide in July, IPD Acting Chief John Joly stated that IPBA’s claim that they didn’t have a full slate of officers on duty to respond to the shooting was misguided. Godfrey’s killing has still not been solved, though movement on that case is anticipated early in 2022.

Some headline-grabbing incidents in October and November brought crime worries to the forefront. A string of violence in October fueled fears that people from outside of Tompkins County were settling scores in Ithaca, as voiced by Mayor Svante Myrick.

Truly anomalous occurrences in November furthered fears: a bomb threat (later determined to be unfounded) at Cornell University put the community on edge, exacerbated two days later when a possibly armed manhunt cut through a large swath of the City of Ithaca, the Town of Ithaca and the Village of Cayuga Heights. Two of the three suspects in that chase were arrested, but the third is still at-large, as far as has been publicly announced.

Crime reports from IPD over the last several weeks have slowed. The police union also signed a new contract with the city, answering over a decade of complaints from officers and the public.

ICSD rollercoaster

There were inherent reasons it was going to be a difficult year for ICSD. COVID-19 regulations in schools have been controversial since students started getting back to classrooms in fall 2020. And, in response to the police brutality protests in summer 2020, the district set out on an ambitious new curriculum called Learning Forward ICSD—just months after the tempest-in-a-teapot furor over Critical Race Theory being taught in classrooms.

What people didn’t see coming was Dr. Luvelle Brown, ICSD’s celebrated superintendent, announcing his resignation from his post at the first Board of Education meeting of the year. Even more surprising was his announcement at the next meeting, when he recanted his resignation after much public confusion. All of this came as allegations of professional and personal misconduct, which have thus far been rejected or unproven by investigating bodies, were being lodged with the state Education Department by Brown’s ex-wife.

That issue has rested largely untouched, and a bit unspoken about, since Brown held a town hall-style meeting in February to address the allegations, his resignation pump-fake and how the district planned to handle COVID-19 going forward after a fairly successful Fall 2020 marking period.

The district did receive millions in funding from the federal government as part of the American Relief Plan, at least part of which they dedicated to fund surveillance testing as students returned more densely to classrooms (though that testing dried up by the holiday break). Staffing and quarantine issues led to some closures at surrounding districts (in November and December) and at Ithaca High School early in the semester, but largely ICSD has plowed ahead—though it will be interesting to see what the district has in store for the return to classrooms in January.

A small higher-education bonus: the tenures of Shirley Collado at Ithaca College and Orinthia Montague at Tompkins Cortland Community College both came to an end. Montague accepted a job in Tennessee, while Collado’s reign, once filled with optimism, ended amid widespread anger over staffing cuts at IC. She is leaving to take a job with College Track.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...