ITHACA, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board’s investigation into the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) process has seen delays in a number of its requests for information from several key actors in its investigation.
The delays have caused some frustration within the board, which has prompted the body to ponder whether it should begin the process of activating its power to subpoena individuals.
The advisory board investigation was spurred by a complaint brought forward by City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock which she made public in April 2022. The points of investigation Brock requested focus on third-party payments made to the co-leaders of the working group tasked with crafting recommendations on the development and implementation of the city’s new Department of Community Safety, a part of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety plan that passed in March 2021. The working group’s report was completed in March 2022. Payments of $10,000 made to RPS working group co-leads Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood originated from funds donated by non-profits and never discussed publicly or approved.
The request also calls critical attention to the role of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), a national non-profit organization focused on addressing social and racial disparities within policing. CPE, which had been involved in the RPS process early on, donated a substantial amount of service and resources to the Reimagining Public Safety process concerning the city’s working group in particular.
Brock requested that potential conflicts of interest related to CPE’s donated services be weighed and for the board to determine if the working group’s March 2022 report could be considered flawed. The City of Ithaca’s Common Council accepted the working group’s report at its July 3 meeting.
A deeper explanation of the investigation Brock requested can be read here.
But, while the Ethics Advisory Board attempted to establish an ample timeline during its last meeting on June 8, it did not receive quick responses from everyone contacted with information requests.
Ethics Advisory Board Chair and Tompkins County Legislator Rich John (D-District 4) said that a request for information submitted to the city’s attorney’s office was met with a response indicating that the office felt the request was “burdensome,” and that the timeline provided was unrealistic.
In an executive session at the end of the advisory board’s June 8 meeting, the five-member board crafted a list of interested parties and information requests, which they had moved to send out with 20 day window allotted for response. If the board received all the responses they submitted by July 7, as they had expected, it would have given the board four weeks to review all the information gathered from interested parties before its July 29 meeting.
However, the city attorney’s office, John said, had requested an extension until Aug. 31. In response, John said that he proposed a deadline extension to the end of July—a month shorter than what the city’s attorney office had requested was realistic. John said that he would notify the board if the city attorney’s office submitted a response to the request for information by Monday in accordance with the alternative July deadline extension he proposed, although he did not have any sure indication that this would happen.
A list of the interested parties nor the information requested by the ethics advisory board is publicly available. John told The Ithaca Voice that disseminating these materials would be considered at the board’s Aug. 19 meeting. At the board’s first meeting, John stated and the rest of the board agreed that it would like to make this information publicly available. The Voice has filed a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request for this information.
During Friday’s meeting, John shared an email written to Ithaca’s Acting Mayor Laura Lewis after being denied information along the timeline the board had prepared for the city attorney’s office.
John said that he wrote to Lewis saying, “I have received the below message from your city attorney and expect that his response was prepared at your direction. The clear tenor of his message is one of noncooperation. With the work that the ethics advisory board is required by New York State to undertake.”
The Ethics Advisory Board’s legal counsel Paul Ferrara, the COO and partner at Costello, Cooney, & Fearon, offered his opinion to the board on the city’s request for an extension, saying “I don’t think the requests were burdensome in any respect.”
John said that he did not receive a response from Lewis.
The City of Ithaca has initiated its own internal investigation after Brock raised her complaints about the RPS process. This investigation will be conducted by outside counsel Kristen Smith, a lawyer from the law firm Bond, Schoeneck, and King in Syracuse. Smith’s investigation will result in a final written report that will be made publicly available, although the scope and parameters of the investigation have not been made public.
At Friday’s Ethics Advisory Board meeting, John further stated that he acknowledged the city’s investigation in his email to Lewis, adding a speculation that “even if the city believes that resisting disclosure to the [Ethics Advisory Board], and instead utilizing its own separately controlled investigation is the better course, certainly conducting a separate city investigation will appear to be to some as duplicative and potentially politically motivated.”
He added, “It is my belief that the [Ethics Advisory Board] will be able to do a faster, more thorough and more publicly supported investigation.”
In accordance with state law, the county’s Ethics Advisory Board’s role as investigator into a city matter is necessitated by the absence of such an ethics advisory board within the City of Ithaca’s own government.
John further said that the requests for information to former City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, and RPS working group co-leads Rosario and Yearwood were delayed. The board had requested that the city attorney’s office forward these requests to the interested parties, though John said that the city attorney declined to do so, or share the addresses of the three individuals, leaving the board to find the addresses on their own. Myrick, Rosario and Yearwood are supposed to have until Aug. 4 to respond to the board to cooperate with the 20 day response window.
The board said that the CPE did not respond to its response for information, though Matrix Consulting Group, the firm selected and hired by CPE to provide analytical support to the RPS working group, did.
The dearth of responses from key interested parties led the board to choose to delay any discussion of the findings it has already made. In light of this, board member Brian Eden suggested that if after a second “friendly letter” asking for cooperation the board does not receive a reply indicating forthcoming information, the Ethics Advisory Board should begin to move forward with the process of activating its subpoena power.
The board’s ability to subpoena individuals, or submit a written order compelling a person to appear in court or face penalties if they fail to do so, hinges on the approval of a majority vote from the county legislature.
“We don’t necessarily have to use it, but it’s a tool that we have available to us and we shouldn’t not have it available when and if we need it,” said Eden.
John indicated that he would like to avoid using the subpoena power if possible and rely on open cooperation from the involved parties. The potential for subpoenas to come into play in the board’s investigation will be decided at its next meeting Aug. 19.
Ultimately, the advisory board’s powers are limited to issuing an advisory opinion on the investigation they’re pursuing. While the opinion does not carry the weight of law and cannot compel the City of Ithaca or Tompkins County to reassess the RPS process on its own, it has the potential to shape the public’s trust in the plan and the process.
An interested party not responding to the board’s request for information, John made clear, does not leave them free from the advisory opinion that the board will produce at the conclusion of their investigation.
“If we believe somebody has deliberately not provided us information, or been obstructive in cooperating with the [Ethics] Advisory Board, we’re able to draw negative inferences from that,” John said. “And so the lack of information is information to some extent”
Correction (07/31/2022): This story originally stated that City of Ithaca’s Common Council adopted the working group’s report at its July 3 meeting, rather than accepted.