ITHACA, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board has begun to release responses gathered from people involved in its investigation spurred by a wide-ranging complaint from City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock concerning the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) Process.
Brock’s 60-page complaint culminates in a broad allegation that the RPS process was marked by a variety of conflicts of interest and third party influence. The 60-pages include emails and other communications, online posts, and documents that Brock has included to support the position of her complaint, which Tompkins County has made available in its entirety on its website, alongside the responses the Ethics Advisory Board has received to its information requests.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board, Tompkins County Legislator Rich John (the board’s chair) said that all the requests for information the board had submitted had been fulfilled, bringing to a close a process that began in June and was originally slated to end in mid-July. The public portion of the meeting lasted little longer than five minutes, with the board going into executive session ostensibly to review the responses they’ve received. They are scheduled to reconvene publicly Friday, Sept. 23 at 2 p.m.
The Ethics Advisory Board began to post the responses to its requests for information to the Tompkins County website on Tuesday. As the rest of the responses to the board’s requests for information are reviewed for redactions, John said that the rest could be up before the end of the week. The Ithaca Voice will be publishing a separate story on the content of the information requests when they are all made available.
As of this report’s publication, the responses that have been posted are from Rachel Leon, the Executive Director of the Park Foundation; Lisa Holmes, the Tompkins County Administrator; Richard Brady, President of Matrix Consulting Group; and Tim Horner, the legal counsel representing the Center for Transformative Action and the Dorothy Cotton Institute; and James F. Moran, legal counsel for Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, the co-leaders of the RPS Working Group who have been at the center of the controversy.
The last interested party in the investigation to respond was the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), a national non-profit based at Yale University that, in a statement to The Voice defined itself as, “First and foremost, CPE is a Black-led organization dedicated to protecting, empowering, and supporting vulnerable communities—particularly Black and Brown communities— in their efforts to redesign their public safety systems.”
Following an article The Ithaca Voice published on Sept. 14 about the Ethics Advisory Board’s intent to begin releasing information whether it had a response from CPE or not, arguing it had waited long enough, CPE issued a statement to The Voice asserting the organization as a “willing participant in all investigations related to the [RPS] process.”
The City of Ithaca has also commissioned its own investigation after Brock made her complaint public, hiring Kristen Smith, a lawyer from the law firm Bond, Schoeneck, and King in Syracuse, as outside counsel. Smith is contracted to produce a report that will be made publicly available at the conclusion of her investigation, for which there is no timeline.
Brock’s complaint ultimately asked the Ethics Advisory Board — which has the power to issue an advisory opinion but does not carry enforceable legal weight — to determine if the report produced by the RPS working group is unbiased, and can be considered a suitable founding document from which to further the process of reimaging public safety.
The RPS working group was composed of members of the Ithaca Police Department, Common Council, members of Ithaca’s Black community, and community leaders. With support from the CPE, the group produced a report that made a host of recommendations for reforming the City of Ithaca’s Police Department, including the formation of a division of unarmed responders, delineation of call responses to armed and unarmed responders, and that the Ithaca Police Department be replaced by a Department of Community Safety to be headed by a civilian.
Regarding CPE, Brock’s complaint focuses on the lack of an opportunity that Common Council had to review and approve or deny CPE’s donated services and monetary contributions related to the RPS process.
CPE became involved with Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Reimagining Public Safety Process soon after former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 203 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police. The order became the impetus for the local RPS process under its mandate that all local governments with a police force conduct a comprehensive review of their police departments and address any racial bias or disproportionate impacts with a certain community.
CPE’s participation in and guidance of the RPS process, Brock alleges, may not solely have been guided by an interest in guiding the Ithaca community to a policing reform in the interest in the community, but also by the organization’s vision of reform. In her complaint, Brock writes that CPE played a larger role in crafting the RPS Working Group’s report than had originally been pitched to Common Council. Instead of note taking and scheduling meetings Brock wrote that, according to what she was told by working group members, CPE directed discussions and meeting agendas.
CPE strongly rebukes the notion that it played a heavy hand in crafting the RPS Working Group’s report. In its statement to The Voice CPE further said, “The accusations lobbied at this community-led process, which CPE was honored to support, have been wildly off-base and downright disrespectful. CPE remains hopeful that the Ithaca community’s ongoing work to see the changes they’ve vocally and passionately sought throughout the two-year-long process will be successful.”
Brock’s complaint points out undisclosed payments that were made available to working group members, and their co-leads, violating City Code which prohibits that volunteer City board members receive outside compensation for their service.
In addition, the complaint also asked the Ethics Advisory Board to consider the potential conflicts of interest in former Mayor Svante Myrick’s serving in his city role while being employed by People for the American Way (PFAW), which he began working for as a Director of Youth Leadership programs in 2017. Myrick left his role as Mayor of Ithaca in February to step in as the Executive Director of the progressive think-tank and political organization.
After Myrick stepped into the role as Executive Director, PFAW hired five organizers for the Ithacans for Reimagining Public Safety Campaign, aimed at rallying public support and pushing for the successful implementation of the plan. PFAW is promoting a plan for American cities to reform their police departments called “All Safe,” which is based on Ithaca’s RPS plan.
Myrick has previously derided Brock’s complaint, calling it a “witch hunt” and lacking overall substance, though has maintained that he will cooperate with the process.
Brock has attempted to position herself throughout this process not as a critic of police reform, but as a critic of the path that Ithaca’s RPS process has taken, which in her view has been overly subjected to the interests of third parties.