Update, April 29: This article has been updated with comments from Acting Mayor Laura Lewis and an additional detail from former Mayor Svante Myrick regarding the Park Foundation.
ITHACA, N.Y. — City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock announced that she has asked the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board to investigate former Mayor Svante Myrick’s role in payments made by a “third-party entity” to Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, among other points of inquiry. Rosario and Yearwood were co-leaders of the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) working group tasked with providing recommendations on how to develop and implement the new Department of Community Safety and other major reforms of the plan.
The request by Brock is currently being reviewed by Tompkins County Attorney Bill Troy, who told The Ithaca Voice that he is reviewing whether the county’s Ethics Advisory Board — which is chaired by Tompkins County Legislator Rich John — has jurisdiction on the matter, before forming a recommendation to the board to exercise their authority.
The statement from Troy stands in contrast to a claim that Brock made that “Tompkins County indeed agrees that there is likely an ethics violation here, and will be initiating the ethics advisory board to review this situation,” regarding Myrick on a host of allegations.
“I did not form an opinion one way or the other at that point,” said Troy.
(Correction, April 29: In an interview with The Voice prior to this story originally being published, Brock made it clear she understood that the request for an ethics investigation is still being reviewed by Troy as of this reporting, and had misspoken on the floor.)
Former Mayor Svante Myrick said he would be glad to cooperate with any ethics investigation into the Reimagining Public Safety process, but that he had not been contacted by either Common Council members or anyone from the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board about the matter as of Thursday afternoon.
A tainted process?
Brock’s comments came on Wednesday, during the discussion of a resolution before Ithaca’s City Administration Committee which would move the city to pay Rosario and Yearwood each $10,000 for their effort leading the 15 member group during the nine-month Reimagining process that has most prominently produced, at this point, the plan to restructure the Ithaca Police Department under the Department of Community Safety.
The payments had been promised to the two co-leaders by Myrick verbally at the start of their work in 2021. The existence of a contract or written agreement dating prior to February 2022, close to when the working group’s work had finished, appears nonexistent.
There was a strong discussion at Wednesday’s meeting on the value that Rosario and Yearwood provided to city in the form of their service, and the importance of compensating that work. The proposed city payments of $10,000 to Rosario and Yearwood each would go against the practice Ithaca has set in not paying volunteer work within its government, such as the volunteers on city commissions, or the planning board.
But, adding additional confusion to the situation, the payments were revealed to have nearly been fulfilled without the approval of Common Council during the City Administration Committee meeting. The contract for the payments had apparently been signed by members of the City Comptroller and Attorney’s offices, and would have been processed if not for City Administration Chair Robert Gesualdo Cantelmo noticing that the payments were supposed to hinge on the approval of the Common Council.
“I wasn’t aware of where those funds had been authorized from and I reached out to city staff to learn more about this,” Cantelmo told The Voice, “And it became clear that not only were the contracts sent to me prior to funding being released from restricted contingency, but that there were other irregularities and improper procedures involved in the overall work of the working group.”
Near the start of the discussion surrounding this resolution on Wednesday, it was revealed that it had become shared knowledge among the councilors on the committee, and Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, that “third-party entities” had made payments to Rosario, Yearwood, and other members of the working group, to a total of $35,000, without the knowledge of common council. Whether the council did know or not, these direct payments to volunteer working group members is a violation of the city’s ethics policies.
Myrick disputed the notion that the payments for the working group co-leads was improper, or that accepting the work of the Center for Policing Equity free of charge inherently tainted the process.
“You can compensate people for work they did for the city, and you can accept pro bono work for the city,” Myrick said. “Both are appropriate. […] This was a big enough lift, and Karen and Eric both have day jobs that this would take away from, and I thought it made sense to give them a stipend, and I still do.”
Further, Myrick disputed that an expenditure of that size — $10,000 for each working group co-lead — would necessarily have to come before Common Council. He said he agreed to the payments with Yearwood and Rosario at the very beginning of the working group process last year.
“We’d never go to Council for something like that, ever,” Myrick said. “If we did, every meeting would be ‘We need new tires for the firetruck.’” Myrick said as he understood it, decisions involving less than $30,000 could be made administratively, while anything involving money larger than that had to be approved by council.
Both Rosario and Yearwood were unable to immediately respond to a request for comment or interview.
Rosario supplied the following comment to The Ithaca Voice: “We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: we should learn from this experience how this could have been done better, and continue to explore how the City can support community members asked to donate their time and share from their lived experiences alongside City employees paid to do so. It’s unfortunate that this is distracting from the hard work done to improve and strengthen public safety for our community, especially those who are most marginalized.”
Yearwood commented to The Voice: “As we continue to Reimagine Public Safety, I’d like us to refocus on the recommendations for the Department of Community Safety and changes we need as a community and a nation. Our working group members worked on this initiative based on our lived experience with integrity. When asked to be a working group member of the City’s Reimagine Public Safety initiative, the only expectation was time commitment.”
The scope of the investigation request
Brock has emerged as the harshest and most vocal critic on Common Council over the lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interest within the RPS process, as well as part of the proposed reforms as well.
Brock is asking for an investigation into Myrick on a number of fronts: on the point of promising city funds to compensate Rosario and Yearwood; potentially soliciting funds from third parties to pay working group members; and soliciting donations in the form of services from the Center of Policing Equity.
The working group relied heavily on donated work and expertise from the Center for Policing Equity CPE, which remained a major but largely uninterrogated figure throughout the duration of the formation, adoption, and early developments of RPS. The non-profit research center is based at Yale University and is dedicated to addressing and improving social and racial disparities within policing.
Among other services, the working group utilized data analysis from CPE’s contractor, Matrix Consulting, rather than through a competitive process, as Alderperson Cynthia Brock wrote in an op-ed. She has stressed that this “gift” was not adequately reviewed for potential conflicts of interest, or potential ulterior agenda CPE might have in trying to remold Ithaca’s police department, constituting a failure of the city to process this favor.
Brock has also asked for Myrick to be investigated regarding a period of time she said the former mayor was serving in both the role of Mayor of Ithaca and as a paid employee of People for the American Way — though his employment with PFAW, starting in 2017 as part of the Youth Elected Official program, was disclosed publicly when it began. Brock alleges a potential ethics violation during this supposed period of time when she alleges Myrick may have been raising funds to lobby in support of RPS.
“The very legislation that he had put forward as mayor for us to consider,” Brock said.
On Wednesday, Brock repeated her support for the tenants of RPS, but condemned the third party payments, saying it “undermines the integrity of the entire process,” a criticism she has leveled before, though less formally. She has asked Lewis to initiate an investigation into the “internal controls” of city government to identify where the government “failed” to properly check the grievances that had been evidenced.
On Wednesday, this line of criticism was echoed by Cantelmo, Jeffrey Barken, and George McGonigal who now openly support the investigations Brock is calling for.
Not all Common Council members have been reached in order to gauge their support for investigating Myrick on the points Brock has been pushing.
The third party payments
Common Council as a whole was made aware of the existence of these payments on April 3, via a mass email from Acting Mayor Laura Lewis in response to a set of inquiries posed by Brock. The email was also sent to the whole of the Tompkins County Legislature, Sheriff Derek Osborne, District Attorney Matt Van Houten, Ithaca Police Department Chief John Joly among other staff and officials from the city and county.
According to Lewis’ email, Rosario and Yearwood received $10,000 each from the Park Foundation, working group members were eligible to claim a $2,000 stipend, and subcommittee members were eligible to claim a $500 stipend. City and county employees were ineligible to receive funds — Yearwood and Rosario are neither city nor county employees.
The Park Foundation supplied the $20,000 to the working group through the Dorothy Cotton Institute. An additional $15,000 was supplied to working group members by the Dorothy Cotton Institute.
While the matter of compensating working group leaders with funds from city coffers could have been remedied by passing a resolution through committee, then onto Common Council for approval, the notion of doing so was on-the-whole deemed inappropriate by the City Administration Committee on Wednesday, considering that third party funds had come into the pockets of Rosario and Yearwood, and other working group members.
“Council is being asked to consider the contract payments against the backdrop of other improper conduct,” said committee chair Cantelmo. “Council has learned that members of the working group, including the co-leads, were paid by a third party organization, and in my reading this is a violation of city policy.”
Myrick said he thinks the call for an ethics investigation is a distraction by Brock, who he labeled as an opponent of the proposal to restructure the Ithaca Police Department, and that it would be a disservice if the allegations served to stop or alter the progress on police reform locally.
As for the involvement of the Dorothy Cotton Institute and the Park Foundation, Myrick said those donations were made to defray the costs of the payments to the co-leads of the Working Group. The Park Foundation approached the city to donate the money, he said.
The resolution to pay both Rosario and Yearwood $10,000 with city funds failed to pass 4 – 1 in the City Administration Committee, with Alderperson Ducson Nguyen voting in favor.
In a comment to The Voice, Nguyen wrote, “I think it would have benefited the former mayor and all of us to be more open and transparent about the decisions to hire CPE and get funding, because the goals were laudable: pay volunteers for their time, including the non-council/non-city employee members of the working group. I don’t think we need an ethics investigation to acknowledge and understand that.”
“It’s all a bullsh*t distraction.”
The improper transfer of funds raised concern among counselors that the perception of the working group’s intentions, and of RPS at large, would be compromised. Transparency has been a difficult issue for the group, since its status makes it exempt from open meetings laws, as well as inner documents and communications that can be gained through New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). It’s a double-edged sword, affording privacy for group members to speak openly about their experiences around law enforcement, while keeping the public guessing as to what occurred behind closed doors.
Fourth Ward Alderperson Jorge Defendini said on Wednesday he was concerned about how the optics of these payments will legitimize unfair criticisms of the RPS process as a, “conspiratorial process when that’s not what it was.”
Cantelmo said, “I think that the procedural errors in [the RPS] process don’t diminish the need for responding to issues that our community members have highlighted, and the need to really scrutinize how we can improve public safety in our community. I really sort of urge that people weigh whatever policy is discussed on its own merits against the improper conduct that may have occurred.”
Alderperson Jeffrey Barken said he thinks that the whole RPS process needs to be “unraveled” due to a lack of transparency from the onset of it. Barken said that moving forward with the payments from the City for Rosario and Yearwood would only “validate public concerns about the process” of RPS.
“Without doing our due diligence and investigating this thoroughly just speaks to the idea of ramming this through without real consideration for all that we should seek to preserve in the way that our precedents have aligned over the past,” said Barken.
During the meeting, Lewis did not speak to her leaning on launching an investigation, nor directly to the third party funds that had been distributed. Lewis was unable to immediately respond to a request for comment or interview.
Lewis said on Wednesday, “I’m interested in us moving forward, not ignoring the issues with how this came about, but moving forward.”
In a later statement to The Ithaca Voice, Lewis said “Like my colleagues, I am concerned by the failure across the past year to consult with Common Council and by the prospect of third-party financial influence on the City’s Reimagining Public Safety process. I will ensure that there is a thorough investigation to establish a clear picture of the facts.”
Myrick said he is willing to participate in any reviewer investigation, but reiterated that he doesn’t feel it’s necessary and that the complaints are being made in bad faith—along with the misguided claims that the process abolishes the Ithaca Police Department, fueled by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association.
“I don’t feel like I need to [defend the process],” Myrick said. He expressed that he views the objections in the ethics report as invalid. “The process was fine and the report is great. If they had any substantive arguments with the report, they would be making them. […] It’s all a bullsh*t distraction.”
Ithaca Voice Managing Editor Matt Butler contributed to this report.