ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca put a resolution where its mouth is on Wednesday night, offering its loudest evidence yet that it’s a “union town” by calling on Starbucks to reopen its Collegetown location and urging the National Labor Relations Board to hold the company accountable for alleged union-busting.

After a fairly extensive discussion late in a packed meeting, Ithaca’s Common Council approved the resolution and may add a letter signed by each member of the governing body (and potentially other officials) to boot.

You can watch the full meeting here and follow along with the agenda here. There was also previous coverage of the abortion sanctuary legislation that was passed, which can be found here.

Starbucks Resolution

After a back-and-forth discussion over whether or not to approve a resolution or send a letter, a subtle but significant difference that reflected previous debate at the City Administration Committee, the Council eventually settled on a resolution.

Familiar divisions cropped up in council as had arisen in Planning and Economic Development Committee. Some maintained that by getting involved, Common Council would be setting an unsustainable precedent of getting involved in each local unionization situation, particularly if union-busting is suspected as it is in this case. Others argued that it was important to align with workers, and that any potential ramifications wouldn’t reach the level that their colleagues feared.

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, who has aligned most vocally with Starbucks workers, many of whom are his constituents in Ward 4, forcefully pushed for the resolution’s passing, though he had softened its language a bit.

“By failing to act, we will be signaling that this city is not ready to intervene and protect our workers and corporations will have free rein to bully their workers out of unionizing,” he said.

Acting Mayor Laura Lewis reiterated her concerns that government should not be involved in union-management battles, instead pushing for a letter to the National Labor Relations Board expressing frustration at Starbucks’ conduct. Her sentiments were echoed and augmented throughout the meeting by Alderperson Jeffrey Barken.

“I, too, see such a resolution as overreach, though that’s not to say I don’t support unions, or I don’t support workers, or I don’t support individuals,” Lewis said. “I do not believe this is a legislative responsibility, so I will not be supporting this.”

There was further back and forth, including Alderperson George McGonigal offering some strong words of rebuke against Starbucks and theorizing that, all things considered, the Collegetown Starbucks workers (and perhaps all Starbucks workers in Ithaca) should consider other companies for employment, including the trades. Alderperson Rob Gearhart thanked DeFendini for the tweaks he had made to the language in the resolution that pulled back some of the rhetoric, saying that was more appropriate for a Common Council action, but that he still preferred a letter over a resolution.

DeFendini continued that he felt that a failure to respond to Starbucks’ conduct would be akin to abandoning the workers there. In response to Alderperson Patrick Mehler’s questions, colleague Cynthia Brock (an ardent supporter of the resolution) clarified that the bill urged action from the National Labor Relations Board to cite Starbucks for labor violations, not Starbucks directly, which seemed to assuage some of his concerns though he did end up voting against. The resolution does request that Starbucks reopen the Collegetown location, but doesn’t go further than that.

Eventually, the resolution was passed 6-4, with Alderpersons Ducson Nguyen, Brock, McGonigal, DeFendini, Phoebe Brown and Robert Cantelmo in support and the remaining members opposing.

Approval of independent investigator

While it was nearly a certainty that the hiring of outside counsel would be approved by Common Council to conduct the city’s internal investigation into potential ethics violations by former Mayor Svante Myrick and possibly others during the Reimagining Public Safety process (more on that below), it was unclear if the name would be released.

The public got a pleasant surprise, however, when City Attorney Ari Lavine did indeed reveal the investigator’s name: Kristen Smith, a lawyer from the law firm Bond, Schoeneck and King in Syracuse. Lavine said that Smith used to be the Corporation Counsel for the City of Syracuse.

“She is deeply familiar with the municipal setting, she understands how government works, and how it should work and how it shouldn’t work when it’s not working great,” Lavine said. Lavine additionally said that the report will be published once it is finished, though a timeline was not provided.

Smith declined an interview request from The Ithaca Voice. The City allocated a maximum of $50,000 to the investigation.

Reimagining Work

There were two fairly significant developments on the Reimagining Public Safety front on Wednesday, though progress on the law enforcement reforms remains a bit uneven.

The two matters at hand were accepting the Reimagining Public Safety report and the creation of a Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety position, the latter of which would provide the civilian oversight that has been often discussed as a main part of the reforms package.

The city’s action Wednesday was slightly unorthodox, in that normally “accepting” a report is a mostly symbolic gesture. Like when the city accepted a report on homelessness that included the possibility of constructing a formalized homeless encampment, that action basically just means acknowledging receipt of the report. However, on Wednesday, Common Council moved forward with “adopting” five measures, including the following:

  1. establish a civilian leadership position, with authority designated by the Mayor, to oversee the City’s public safety response systems,
  2. establish an ad-hoc public safety committee (which was also announced Wednesday),
  3. require community-centered training for both armed and unarmed first responders,
  4. supply improved technology for community safety efforts,
  5. implement improved data collection and public reporting of such data

Even those, though, the council is “adopting” them to begin working on them—the adoption itself does not necessitate their implementation exactly as written above, since all five will be further fleshed out as additional recommendations are also put into place.

McGonigal voiced his longstanding opinion that creating a civilian leadership position atop the public safety system makes for a top-heavy structure, and that the police already answer to a civilian in the mayor (or city manager, depending on the outcome of the referendum in November). But he said feedback from impacted communities had persuaded him to support.

“A large number of people in the Black community that I’ve spoken with really feel that this is important, so I’m going to go with that recommendation,” McGonigal said. “I think it’s vital that the job description is very clear on what we want, and that it’s a real job. […] In fact, we’re looking for a chief of police, and that individual should have some of these same qualities that we’re looking for in a [Deputy Chief of Staff of Public Safety].

Cynthia Brock reiterated her apprehension to accepting the report and its findings while an ethics investigation is still underway (two investigations, to be clear: the aforementioned city investigation and the county’s ethics board) into the process. Her concern rests less on the mere fact that an investigation is ongoing, but that the ethics violations which are the subject of that investigation could have unduly swayed the process or its results.

“Working groups are designed to officially advise and inform government functions and our decision-making processes,” Brock said. “It is essential that our working groups and the reports we receive should be free from inappropriate and undue influences and that they should be based on qualified and unbiased data and information.”

Brock said Common Council should be demanding the “highest ethical standards from our working groups.” With that in mind, Brock said she “cannot vote to accept this report as a valid, unbiased report of an unbiased working group.” She maintained that she supports the overall reform process but strongly questions the manner in which they are reaching the endpoint.

Brown and Lewis pushed back on Brock’s sentiments, with Lewis objecting to some of the characterizations of the process and Brown urging Brock and other Council members to forge ahead on the reforms. Ducson Nguyen also defended the formulation of the recommendations.

Brock attempted to change the wording of the resolution from “accepts” to “acknowledges,” which Barken then supported and said that, without it, he would not vote in favor of accepting the report. The issue was called to a vote, but the tweak failed. The resolution in full then passed, with Brock and Barken the two votes opposing.

“People like me have been hearing the word ‘wait’ for as long as I can remember,” Brown said once the vote to accept the report had successfully passed. “It is imperative that we move on.”

After that discussion, the council briefly debated the creation of a Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety, which has seemed to rise above the formerly floated Commissioner of Public Safety position. That position would oversee the restructured armed and unarmed first responders department (which, to this point, has been known as the Department of Community Safety). It could also become a Deputy City Manager of Public Safety position if the aforementioned referendum in November is successful to create a city manager position which would take on many of the operational responsibilities of the current mayor position.

The position’s creation was approved unanimously.

Other News and Notes

  • George McGonigal, Phoebe Brown and Rob Gearhart were all appointed to a search committee dedicated to finding a new permanent Chief of Police for the Ithaca Police Department (or, alternatively, the Division of Police, if the Reimagining restructure is implemented).
  • Former Alderperson Donna Fleming has been appointed to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency board.
  • Council voted to support a funding request by the Ithaca Farmers Market to seek money from New York State for vehicular and pedestrian access improvements.
  • Council also approved about $668,500 in funding for new boilers at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility.
  • The newly drawn City of Ithaca Ward lines were accepted.

Matt Butler

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