ITHACA, N.Y.—Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting was largely consumed with how to navigate the coming months of reform progress, with city officials balancing between not wanting to rush into the wrong plan and trying to show the community that the city is advancing the goals of police reform.

Common Council members mulled next steps and pondered the ways the city could break up the Reimagining effort into pieces that could be passed more efficiently, since it seems likely there will be far more discussion on the currently proposed IPD restructuring. In short, that restructuring adds five unarmed Community Solutions Workers to a larger Department of Community Safety, which would include the Division of Community Solutions and the Division of Police, but some of the changes also require a public referendum to be initiated.

Perhaps the most immediately noteworthy part of the meeting came in the closing minutes, during which City Attorney Ari Lavine confirmed that the City of Ithaca is preparing for an investigation into “the potential outside financial influence on the [RPS] process.” That’s in addition to the Tompkins County Board of Ethics investigation into potential ethics violations within the process, which County Attorney Bill Troy announced on Monday, at the behest of Alderperson Cynthia Brock

There are several aspects of the city’s investigation that are not currently clear, like what specifically is under investigation, who is leading it, and what the timeline is. Lavine mentioned that Lewis had called for the investigation, but Brock asked for more details, indicating that not all council members knew about the investigation before the meeting. 

“I think that likely is best discussed in executive session given the implications as a personnel matter,” Lavine said in response. “The city is in the process of standing up an investigation along the lines the mayor has called for.”

After the meeting, Lewis told The Ithaca Voice that she couldn’t provide more information beyond what was said in the meeting. 

Lavine said that after analyzing Bill Troy’s opinion, he agrees that the matter does indeed fall to the Tompkins County Board of Ethics for advisory jurisdiction since there is no city board for such situations. Lavine said he “certainly expects” that all involved city staff or officials will cooperate with both investigations. 

Though the matter had been scheduled for a rather lengthy discussion, it was cut short, lasting less than five minutes before the council decided to enter into executive session. Before that, though, there was an extended deliberation on what kind of steps can come in the short-term. You can watch the full video here.

City and County mulling CJC agreement

First, Lewis gave an update on negotiations between the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County regarding the operation of the Community Justice Center (CJC). She read some excerpts from a letter that Tompkins County Chairperson Shawna Black, who had pushed back on some of the city’s negotiating positions.

Namely, Black said the city shouldn’t mark the ending of the initial contract between the two entities as Sept. 2023 (the city was basing the two-year deal on when the CJC was created), preferring to see the deal be struck through the end of 2023 to allow for more time and accurately reflect when CJC leader Monalita Smiley started her work, which was at the beginning of 2022. She also said that the city’s proposed quarterly budget approvals and updates from the CJC was an unreasonably frequent check-in schedule that would disrupt work.

“It’s impractical and not a sustainable commitment to the work of Reimagining Public Safety,” Black wrote. “Calling the CJC’s work to question and constantly voting to approve their work would not be an effective use of staff time, would stifle progress, and relitigate decisions that have already been made.”

Black also rebuked the city for publicizing the potential term sheet (included in the agenda) before it was agreed to, saying it was a “breach of trust,” and that it “put the collaboration at risk.” Lewis responded that the city did so in the interest of transparency.

Most council members seemed willing to capitulate on the frequency of updates, while still wanting to reserve the right to ask for regular presentations that would update Common Council on past work and future plans of the CJC.

“For any collaboration to work, especially this one, we need to be on good terms with the county,” McGonigal said. “If they have a problem with this quarterly business, I think we need to address that and come to a mutually agreed upon accounting moving forward.”

There was a good amount of support for an idea that came from Ward 5 Alderperson Robert Cantelmo, which stated that the city should consider decoupling budget approvals with status updates, so that Common Council could keep checking in on the progress of the CJC’s implementation work. Ward 3 Alderperson Jeffrey Barken supported that idea, saying it would give the city a chance to take CJC proposals, or its own, and “pitch” them to the community—a way to keep the community deeply involved which had been a concern of Alderperson Phoebe Brown. 

To that point, Cantelmo suggested an annual prospective (or looking forward) work plan presented by the CJC, which when approved by Council would trigger the release of that year’s funding, though retrospective updates would still be delivered throughout the year. Barken countered that Common Council might not want to award a year’s worth of funding to maintain leverage over the progress of certain projects that the CJC was working on — instead asking for perhaps a mid-year budget approval check-in. Cantelmo partially agreed, but clarified that since much of the funding would be for staff salaries he felt that putting those workers in that type of precarity would be unfair. 

Brown further questioned why the deal is only for two years, saying that length made it seem more like a pilot program. Lewis clarified that the initial deal is two years, but that there is built-in availability to approve the CJC to continue after that first two years. Lewis said it would be important to review metrics of success after those first two years to better evaluate the CJC’s strengths and weaknesses, and Brown seemed to agree with that.

Presumably the city will take the ideas floated in Council and return to the bargaining table with Tompkins County officials to hammer out a joint-operation agreement for the CJC though a timeline was not discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.

A referendum coming in November?

Will there be a public vote this year on the Reimagining Public Safety measures? That was the plan since the law enforcement recommendations were introduced in March. But it seems doubtful, if Wednesday’s meeting is a harbinger of the process moving forward.

Council members were informed by Lavine that if a law is to be considered for public referendum in November, it must be approved by Common Council by its July meeting, which seemed a bit too fast for most members.

There’s an overarching tension that has developed on the board. A frequently mentioned sentiment that the city shouldn’t just pass anything for the sake of passing it—but an equally frequently stated intention to show in some tangible way to the community that there is a deep dedication to moving forward with some meaningful police reform plan. Ward 3 Alderperson Rob Gearhart mentioned that specifically, talking about the importance of “keeping our foot on the gas pedal.”

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini expressed some of the strongest opposition to rushing to approve a reform plan by July if that meant compromising the plan’s quality.

“To have the policy extracted and voted upon by July, with a great deal of factors that are unknown, is a little concerning to me,” DeFendini said, reiterating his point that since many on the council consider the CJC part of the “first step” of public safety reform, that first impression needs to be positive to build community trust and momentum. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty that hasn’t been addressed beyond stating that this is ‘the first step.’ […] It’s important to make that first step as solid as possible.”

Several public officials have exhibited a desire for a slow-down of sorts on the process. That’s been led by District Attorney Matt Van Houten, who has lamented that his office was not as involved in the plan’s creation as it should have been, and Common Council members Barken and Brock. All have written op-eds to that effect, with Brock taking the further step of questioning the ethics of the working group’s final recommendation. All have variously offered support for the general idea of RPS, but the specifics have been questioned.

Brown said that marginalized groups are often told to “wait” on this type of progress, and that Ithaca shouldn’t make those groups wait for long to act. Partly to address that, Cantelmo suggested the re-establishment of the Public Safety Standing Committee. 

“I would like to see council or the mayor’s office consider reestablishing this body, so that once we get through all this voting, there is still a dedicated body of members of council and future members of council that can continue to do research, continue to make improvements, stay laser focused on this,” Cantelmo said. “I wonder if colleagues think there is some value in having this revived.”

Brown and DeFendini followed, expressing support for that idea. As she has before, Brown stated she was disappointed in how the plan turned out (she wishes it would have gone further toward reallocating police budget money to other community efforts), but was interested in being on the new committee if it is created. 

DeFendini echoed Brown, while adding that the establishment of the Public Safety Standing Committee, which existed in Ithaca through the Carolyn Peterson administration should go forward if a referendum isn’t set this year to ensure that the effort doesn’t stall while still incomplete.

Lewis said the city could possibly establish an ad-hoc committee with a focus on public safety. Brock particularly pushed for the meetings and work of the Public Safety Standing Committee, if it is created, to be public and participatory, giving even more of the community a chance to be involved than had been in the working groups last year. She was assured that, since it would be a committee, open meetings law would apply to the potential new body.

Matt Butler

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