ITHACA, N.Y.—Two letters to the editors, featuring dozens of signatures, have developed over the last two weeks since the sudden resignation of Luis Aguirre-Torres, the outgoing Director of Sustainability for the City of Ithaca.
The letters, one written by the Latino Civic Association (LCA) and a separate one signed by 54 people, including many leaders in the environmental/sustainability community locally, depict the worry in the community over losing an important figure in the Ithaca Green New Deal implementation and a prominent person of color in Ithaca leadership.
The LCA letter thanks Aguirre-Torres for his work and progress on the Green New Deal during his 19-month tenure, but more generally noting “a pattern of disenfranchisement that has arisen in recent months in local government and leadership, particularly in regards to leaders of color.”
The letter further draws parallels between Aguirre-Torres’ departure, during which he obliquely referred to a lack of commitment from City of Ithaca leadership, and the ethics investigation into the Reimagining Public Safety process, focused on the ethical implications of Working Group co-leads Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood being paid for their work on the project. Those potential violations were first flagged by Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock earlier this year, and a pair of investigations have been undertaken since then: one fairly publicly, by the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board led by Tompkins County Legislator Rich John, and one behind closed doors, an internal City of Ithaca investigation being conducted by outside counsel.
The letter paints both as undercutting leaders of color in the community and slowing the progress of both the IGND and certain Reimagining reforms—though some have proceeded unimpeded.
“Both the IGND and the Reimagining Public Safety project are tasked by signed resolutions (June 17, 2019) and gubernatorial executive orders (June 12, 2020) respectively to center the experiences and voices of marginalized peoples in Ithaca, many of whom are Black and Latinx—and both projects are facing, at best, a lack of critical support from the very entities that voted in favor of this commitment at the onset,” reads the LCA letter, signed by four members of LCA leadership and four additional signatories.
The letter is signed by LCA President Patricia Fernández de Castro, VP Eva López, Treasurer Fernando de Aragón and Secretary Francia Wallace, as well as four other members.
It posits that progress has been made on inequalities inherent in climate change and law enforcement treatment, but that the recent developments risk reversing that.
“We will lose that progress much more rapidly than the time it took to achieve it if the city fails to support our leaders from those very circles in our community, and the projects that are designed to empower and protect the individuals and families in our city who have been historically neglected,” the letter concludes. “We call on city leadership to dig deep and find the courage to reexamine and recommit to the assurances they have made to the people of Ithaca.”
For the city’s part, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis said at the time of Aguirre-Torres’ announcement that she is “deeply committed to fulfilling the goals of the Ithaca Green New Deal and have great confidence in the city’s planning staff to achieve those goals,” highlighting Planning Director Lisa Nicholas and Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans. She announced plans to seek another Director of Sustainability, a position created upon Aguirre-Torres’ hiring in March 2021.
That Oct. 7 statement, apparently, did not allay the concerns of the dozens of signatories on the other letter, submitted and published late last week in The Ithaca Voice. Members of the local social justice and sustainability movements, in their words, such as Tompkins County Progressives chair Emily Adams, HeatSmart Tompkins Program Director Lisa Marshall, former Tompkins County Legislature chair Martha Robertson and many more.
Their letter focuses more on highlighting Aguirre-Torres’ contributions during his time with the city and emphasizing the importance of climate change action.
“Overall, the IGND will benefit the health and welfare of residents while creating well-paying green jobs, improving the building stock, and supporting the local economy,” the letter proclaims. “The city could not have found a better match for its ambitious goals than Dr. Aguirre-Torres.”
Like the LCA’s letter, though, there is an overtone of worry over how precarious this leaves the IGND’s forward momentum, even while recognizing Evans’ aforementioned work on the goals.
“The undersigned community leaders emphasize the urgency of addressing these issues, and pledge to do our part to keep the momentum going to realize the IGND’s inextricably linked goals of decarbonization and social justice,” their letter states. “We urge the city to do their part as well.”