ITHACA, N.Y.—The longest Common Council meeting in recent memory packed a lot of action into over five hours, spanning topics like the East Hill Fire Station, a refresher on the city’s Green New Deal policy, new City of Ithaca Ward maps, and more fun. However, the most discussion prominent topic, about creating a Commissioner of Public Safety position as part of the Reimagining Public Safety reforms, got kicked to a special meeting next week.

First, though, the city declared June 13-19 as a celebration of Juneteenth, featuring programming that will take place throughout the week. GIAC Director Dr. Leslyn McBean-Clairborne appeared before council to thank them and read through the list of events, which will culminate with a festival outside of Southside Community Center on Saturday, June 18 and a community health fair on the Commons on Sunday, June 19 from 2-4 p.m. There is also a monument to Black veterans outside of St. James AME Zion Church on Cleveland Avenue that McBean-Clairborne encouraged people to visit.

As for the rest of the meeting, our recap follows, and for those interested the meeting recording can be found here and those looking to follow along with the agenda can do so here.

Electrification of the Ithaca Fire Department

Fire Chief Tom Parsons gave a presentation on the fire department’s progress moving towards the goals set forth in the Ithaca Green New Deal, outlining the at-times difficult process of moving the department towards more sustainability.

“It’s not easy, in some respects, because we’re dealing with some new technology that is not fully developed,” Parsons said. “A lot of it is a concept […] I want to give you a road map, it’s not a solid road, the lines are not straight, some of it will depend on funding and timing with the city.”

He did say the East Hill Fire Station, detailed below, is being designed to be 100% electric (other than the emergency generator), and that the fire department is currently assessing options for electric-powered fire trucks. He discussed two potential options, a hybrid that is being employed in Madison, Wisconsin and a fully electric with emergency backup that is being used in Los Angeles.

Parsons spoke optimistically but measuredly about the advantages of introducing electric fire trucks. Batteries would likely have to be replaced every 10 years, though the vehicles themselves should be able to last longer than that.

Electric fire trucks would cost about $1.4-$1.6 million per vehicle, about double what current fire engines cost, and additional renovations to outfit stations for such vehicles would cost another $1 million. While the climate will benefit, the city’s savings would be rather small — about $155,000 over 17 years.

“If there’s an expectation that transitioning from internal combustion firetrucks to electric firetrucks would be vast amounts of savings, it isn’t,” Parsons said. “The point is getting to a carbon-neutral community, and what that means is that despite the cost we’re going to have to move toward electric vehicles.”

Parsons concluded by saying he believes it will cost about $5.8 million over the next few years to make the conversions, but that a variety of funding sources will be pursued to do so. He hopes that the department will have a fully electric fleet by next decade. Alderperson Rob Gearhart mentioned that since Ithaca is at the forefront of pursuing a municipal Green New Deal, they will be able to find sources eager to help the city achieve its energy goals.

East Hill Fire Station

More IFD matters were on tap. In terms of voting issues, the most impactful for residents is the slight shift of the East Hill Fire Station, which is currently at 309 College Avenue. It would likely move to a spot on Dryden Road, a parcel that the city would receive in exchange for the 309 College Avenue land and $5.1 million. The decision Wednesday night marks the resolution of a long-term goal of the city to find a new home for its East Hill fire department.

Alderperson George McGonigal made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the city should require the developer to re-open the Nines restaurant and recreate its famous pizza. While popular, the move did not receive a second in support.

Common Council holds final approval over the actual sale and transfer of the property, as it has been moved to the possession of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, but the process appears to be moving forward in earnest.

Commissioner of Community Safety

This was not a voting matter, so it was never going to be decided on Wednesday, but the expected discussion was also cut rather short. While a specific time and night hasn’t been announced yet, it will likely be Wednesday, June 8, at 6 p.m. as previous special meetings on the topic have been the following Wednesday after a council meeting.

The issue drew quite a bit of support during public comment, with most commenters applauding Alderperson Ducson Nguyen for keeping the process moving forward, despite the ethics investigation that has arisen surrounding the Reimagining working group.

McGonigal weighed in, saying he thinks back to the early listening sessions the city held and feels that open-minded sentiment has been lost throughout the process. While referring to former Mayor Svante Myrick as his friend, McGonigal said he still thought the restructuring had flaws and that mistakes were made in its composition and process.

“I am not convinced that this is the best organizational method moving forward,” McGonigal said. “I think it’s a top-heavy organization. We’re about to also, perhaps, select a city manager. A city manager, and then a commissioner of public safety, would both oversee the Department of Community Solutions and the police department.”

McGonigal argued that a city manager would provide adequate citizen oversight of the Division of Police, and that the money theoretically used for a salary for the Commissioner of Public Safety could be redirected to unarmed Division of Community Solutions workers.

It was about 10:50 p.m. at that point, which might have influenced what came next, an abrupt segue into executive session concerning “pending litigation,” which did not appear to have anything to do with the commissioner discussion. Just before that, Gearhart mentioned that it was probably unwise to have such an important discussion so far into the meeting (and so late at night). So, there will be a meeting dedicated to the topic in the near future, with a potential vote coming at the July 6 meeting — though that’s only if the council comes to a consensus after the special meeting. The creation of the commissioner position would also be dependent on public referendum, so virtually nothing would be actually set in stone until November 2022 even in the best-case scenario for Reimagining proponents.

For the sake of brevity, Common Council also approved the following measures:

  • A local law that will ensure hybrid meetings will continue, hopefully expanding access to public meetings. It allows for government body members to meet virtually as long as a certain quorum is present physically even when a state of emergency, like from COVID-19, is lifted. As Lewis put it, ideally the law will allow staff and the public to watch meetings virtually, while most or all members will meet in-person. Unless they meet an “extraordinary circumstances” threshold, members will not be allowed to vote if they are attending virtually.
  • Among a slew of funding approvals, the most interesting was probably an approval for the city to pursue grant funding from the federal government, up to $350,000, for financial assistance to implement an unarmed Crisis Intervention Team under the Ithaca Police Department. Council spoke strongly in favor of the proposal, and Ithaca Acting Police Chief John Joly advocated for it as well. The team can be separate from the unarmed workers that have been discussed in the Reimagining process, though they can also be combined, clarified by Alderperson Robert Cantelmo, who jumpstarted the resolution. Alderperson Jorge DeFendini pointed out that this was an example of moving forward with the ideas included in Reimagining, supported by the community and the police.
  • There was brief discussion of the TIDES proposal report, which outlined a way to formalize the homeless encampment known as “the Jungle,” via construction of 25 cottages (for lack of a better word) as well as a common living space and bathroom. The Common Council “accepted” the report, meaning an acknowledgment of its receipt and the findings therein. It does not, however, mean that TIDES is necessarily moving forward, just that there’s interest and definitive action could be taken later, likely with some collaboration with Tompkins County.
  • The City of Ithaca announced a settlement with two people who were involved in a biking crash on a city work site in 2018. Larry and Rhonda White will receive $75,000 and end their lawsuit against the city, according to the settlement which was approved by Common Council.
  • Public comment consisted of about 10-12 people, the majority of which spoke in favor of Nguyen’s resolution to create a Commissioner of Public Safety position, with two exceptions who were opposed.
  • Ithaca’s Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres delivered an update on the Ithaca Green New Deal. His presentation can be viewed here, and previous reporting can be seen here.
  • Ever Stokes, of the Ithaca Youth Bureau, was given the Quarterly Employee Recognition Award.

Matt Butler

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