ITHACA, N.Y.— In his relatively brief time as the City of Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability, Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres put Ithaca, a city of little more than 30,000, on the international map for its approach to fighting climate change on the local level. He gave backbone and potential to the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND), a 2019 resolution of the City of Ithaca committing it to a monumentally ambitious set of goals to, ultimately, accomplish city-wide decarbonization by 2030 while prioritizing social equity.
“When I came on board, the idea of achieving those goals was kind of crazy, and I loved it,” said Aguirre-Torres, who was hired in March 2021.
Aguirre-Torres had, it seemed, sliced and served pie-in-the-sky aspirations, and even had a taste. While he may have loved the work, Aguirre Torres made the “difficult but necessary decision” to leave his position as Director of Sustainability, publicly announcing his departure from Ithaca’s City Hall in an Oct. 7 tweet.
“The commitment needed to achieve Net Zero extends to BOTH the community and city leadership, especially when it comes to social justice issues,” the tweet reads, “I love the work and believe we can win this fight. Some painfully disagree & try to stop you.”
Oct. 21 was Aguirre-Torres’ last day as Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability. With an ocean of work ahead of the IGND, his decision sent a shock through the local environmental and social justice leaders, as well as many in local government. Something seemed amiss. Aguirre-Torres’ ominous parting message would lead many from these local groups to sign a public letter published in The Ithaca Voice, questioning if support in City Hall was there for a Director of Sustainability whose work had become internationally recognized.
The short version of Aguirre-Torres’ answer would be no.
“We had the technical experts [and] national technical experts endorsing our approach,” said Aguirre-Torres. “And internally it was, ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you meeting with these people?’”
An increasingly challenging work environment, a sense of decreased buy-in from City Hall for the IGND, and numerous microaggressions amounting to what felt like an unconscious bias against him are why Aguirre-Torres felt he must step away. Ithaca leadership has insisted that its dedication to the various goals of the IGND remain.
In the effort to report Aguirre-Torres’ story, The Ithaca Voice reached out to Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, City Attorney Ari Lavine, and Ithaca’s Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, requesting interviews on Oct. 27. This initial request, and a second request for interviews was denied. The Ithaca Voice accepted an offer from Lewis on Oct. 31 to receive a joint statement in response to a written set of questions from her, Lavine and Nicholas, which was sent by the city on the morning of Nov. 4.
On the evening of Nov. 4, Aguirre-Torres announced his support for one of Lewis’ opponents in a race for a one-year term as Ithaca’s mayor, Progressive Party candidate Katie Sims, a housing and environmental activist who has championed the ambitious aims of the IGND. If it was implicit before, Aguirre-Torres’ departure has now become expressly politicized as election day looms.
Progress became ‘simply impossible’
After Ithaca’s former Mayor Svante Myrick left office in February, Aguirre-Torres described his work environment as growing increasingly restrictive. Before Myrick had stepped away, Aguirre-Torres had made Ithaca a topic of discussion in the White House and international climate forums for a forthcoming building electrification program.
The plan was to make a widely accessible loan and lease program for efficiency and retrofitting projects, so home and building owners could affordably swap out drafty windows, or replace a gas boiler with a heat pump — a device that runs on electricity and can both heat and cool space. If Ithaca could source electricity from carbon-neutral sources, these efficiencies and retrofitting would address around 40% of Ithaca’s greenhouse gas emissions. Experts have lauded it as an innovative solution to one of the many challenging problems in the race to fight climate change.
And there’s money on the table. Aguirre-Torres had attracted $100 million in capital, found the partners to design a loan and lease program, and the City of Ithaca entered into a contract with the company BlocPower in June to implement the Ithaca’s building electrification program.
Aguirre-Torres said that after Myrick’s departure, internal committees of city staff became the routine and he began to feel undermined. Going forward, he would need to gain consensus from them before being able to communicate potential programs with members of Common Council.
The reason for this, Aguirre-Torres said he was told, was to mitigate the impact that IGND programs might have on the workloads of myriad city departments. These committees were led by the City Attorney, Ari Lavine, and their result, Aguirre-Torres said, was “me defending what I was doing, and not explaining what I was doing.”
“[Lavine] was resistant to every single idea,” said Aguirre-Torres, emphasizing that that dynamic with the City Attorney came with the start of his work in the City of Ithaca. “He had already decided that I was that person that would move fast and break things, and he was not focused on the person that had 20 years of experience and had been recognized internationally for doing this kind of complex work.”
When he began as the Director of Sustainability, Aguirre-Torres said he attributed Lavine’s attitude as a function of his duties as the city’s official legal counsel. But by his departure, that view would change.
Lewis was frequently present at these meetings, though Aguirre-Torres said that it was “simply impossible to make progress.” Presentations, and explanations of programs became derailed, he said, and gaining approval and understanding of complicated programs was not possible within the hard-capped meeting lengths.
Aguirre-Torres sympathized with the position that Lewis is in as a leader, saying that she has been dealt a very challenging hand, stepping into leading a city still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, working to bear the weight of providing its services under short staff, all while managing the ambitious efforts of Reimagining Public Safety, the Ithaca Green New Deal, and economic uncertainty emerges on the horizon. Senior staff and their institutional memory represent an important asset, said Aguirre-Torres, but in his view, “There is overreach by the City Attorney.”
The goals of the IGND are ‘aspirational’
In an April meeting with Lewis and his direct supervisor Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, Aguirre-Torres said he was told by Nicholas that he wasn’t meant to achieve the mandate of achieving city-wide decarbonization by 2030. Aguirre-Torres specified that Lewis did not say anything herself on the matter, but sat as Nicholas explained the change in instruction.
“We had a meeting, when I was told, ‘Well, you know that the Green New Deal goals are aspirational, and that you were never expected to meet those goals,” said Aguirre-Torres, adding that he was instructed to take this as guidance for his future work.
“I walked out of that meeting feeling disheartened,” Aguirre-Torres said. The idea that he was never expected to achieve the goals of the IGND, whether they were crazy or not, was news to him.
“There is no denying that people knew I was working under the assumption that I had to meet the goals but also, I had […] a plan to meet those goals,” he said, “So when in April, I’m told that ‘You need to slow down, and don’t worry about it, because it’s not even what we were meant to do,’ then things got complicated.”
By September, Aguirre-Torres said that he had been instructed by Lavine and his direct supervisor Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, to stop meeting with the White House, to stop his communication with the media, with New York’s Federal Reserve and Governor’s Office, to stop speaking with elected officials, like Ithaca’s Assembly Representative Anna Kelles.
“I was told that I did wrong by bringing this much attention to the city. So when I keep on saying ‘This is great, because people are paying attention to us,’ it was a liability,” in the view of his superiors, said Aguirre-Torres.
The city’s response
Lewis, Lavine, and Nicholas’ joint statement does not delve into specific detail about their working relationship with Aguirre-Torres, reading, “Despite the great personal restraint required of each of us in this circumstance, the fact remains that the City does not comment on personnel matters. Luis is free to tell his story in a way that City policy does not permit us.”
The statement does thank Aguirre-Torres for his work, and maintains that the City of Ithaca is committed to moving the IGND forward on an “aggressive timeframe” but with the commitment to not “overpromise and underdeliver.”
“Where multiple departments are necessary to a legislative endeavor, Ithacans can rest assured that their government includes necessary departments in figuring out what the City can actually deliver before promising to deliver it,” the statement reads. “Those who are tasked with ensuring that the innovators promise only what the City can deliver are engaged in crucially necessary reality checks, nothing worse.”
The Ithaca Voice contacted the New York Coalition For Open Government (NYCOG), a nonprofit focused on promoting transparency in government and access to information, seeking an outside opinion on City Hall’s decisions surrounding the IGND. NYCOG President Paul Wolf wrote that there were no “legal or ethical issues” in his view.
“The Council adopted a resolution in 2019, which set forth certain goals. The resolution calls for tracking and reporting progress on achieving the goals,” wrote Wolf. “The [Acting] Mayor who was not serving as Mayor when the Council adopted the resolution may have different thoughts on how to go about things but [Aguirre-Torres’] voice is just one and it is up to the Council to track and ask questions regarding the resolution which they passed.”
The City of Ithaca is facing significant staffing challenges, and the underlying stressors that cause this are prominently connected to the city’s future sustainability work. The circumstances beg the question if it’s even possible for the City of Ithaca to achieve a carbon reduction commitment more ambitious than any nation on earth, particularly with just seven years to do so if the 2030 deadline is to be met.
Aguirre-Torres, however, did believe it was possible. “Once you start bringing the pieces down and connecting the dots, you realize this is actually doable. It just means a lot of commitment.”
“City government has been heavily stressed by the past few years, from garbage collection to tax bills, building inspections to crumbling City facilities, policing to staffing for road and water main repair. We need to innovate sustainable strategies through which essential City services can continue to be successfully delivered to our residents for years to come. That is sustainable sustainability,” the statement reads.
The city of Ithaca is short over 30 positions in its Department of Public Works (DPW), and is struggling to fill vacancies in its fire department, and police department that is struggling to recruit officers to its police department while city government also navigates what has increasingly become a ponderous public safety reform process.
‘I didn’t know Luis was having problems. I don’t know if anybody on council knew.’
The intertwined challenges of recruitment, retention, and demoralization across city departments emerged in a strong and emotional show of discontentment towards Ithaca’s Common Council on Wednesday’s meeting, derailing a vote on Ithaca’s budget that otherwise would have likely passed.
At that meeting, Lavine found himself the direct subject of criticism from some city employees on Wednesday. They described him as an uncompromising contract negotiator with the city’s public sector unions, which has resulted in the gradual suppression of the wages offered by the City of Ithaca below the competitive standard. This, city employees speculated, may be in service of reining in the city budget — which with rising costs has jumped to over $90 million in 2023 from $84 million in 2022 — but has made recruitment and retention so difficult that it may jeopardize the functionality of essential services. DPW is considering contracting with a private company in order to continue city wide trash collection.
Aguirre-Torres would speak at this meeting, appearing remotely to contribute to the litany of complaints fed up workers delivered to City Hall. The meeting revealed that Common Council had, to a seemingly large degree, been unaware of just how close city employees had come to their wit’s end. And, unaware of the discontent that drove Aguirre-Torres to resign.
Alderperson George McGonigal said on Wednesday that, “I didn’t know Luis was having problems. I don’t know if anybody on council knew. So, I wish Luis that you let us know, because we don’t want to lose you, and we’re proud of your work.”
As it currently stands, Common Council has a relatively limited role in giving direct administrative instructions to city staff, and determining what an individual staff member’s latitude for action is on a week-to-week basis. Those responsibilities are under the mayor’s purview. A remaining regret for Aguirre-Torres is not breaking the imposed communication gap with council. “I normalized that instead of pushing back against all of these layers.”
To him, this distance between the Common Council, the Sustainability Director and the work happening in City Hall is what holds the greatest risk of failure for the IGND. Aguirre-Torres believes that Common Council thought that he had the authority and support to act effectively in his role.
“To actually set up this Director of Sustainability for success […] I am of the belief that Common Council thought they did, and it was a staff who never did,” said Aguirre-Torres. “And that gap that exists between the staff and Common Council is destructive, and it could permanently affect the Ithaca Green New Deal.”
“I don’t think staff should be a barrier for me to get to Common Council, and I don’t think staff should legislate in any way. I don’t think they are the ones who decide what the Ithaca Green New Deal is and isn’t.”
But Aguirre-Torres said what ultimately led him to leave was an increasingly difficult work environment, coupled with mounting examples of unconscious bias he faced. Aguirre-Torres, who is Mexican, would find that he was unable to shake the feeling that he was treated as an outsider, and not trusted. “That was the status that I came in with, and I left with: a permanent outsider,” he said.
He was willing to share some pointed examples, though not the names of the specific people that made comments.
Early in his role as Director of Sustainability, Aguirre-Torres said that someone who was on Common Council insisted that Aguirre-Torres explain the building electrification program he had proposed to an “expert” of their choosing. This expert, Aguirre-Torres said, was more or less an arbitrary pick, someone that this unnamed Alderperson trusted, but did not have any special qualification to review the program.
“It really was humiliating, and it’s very difficult for people who don’t live through that on a regular basis to understand what it is to be 50 years old with so much experience and recognition, and then have to still sit through that because your job is at stake.”
Upon making a presentation to colleagues at City Hall on the building electrification program, Aguirre-Torres says the first comment he received was, “Did you learn that in the National [Autonomous] University in Mexico?” Aguirre-Torres said that he was told by another colleague in City Hall that he would “never understand” what Ithaca’s community was about. These types of comments, Aguirre-Torres says, did not get pushback from other colleagues. He recalled one instance where his colleague, Sustainability Coordinator Rebecca Evans, forced this type of comment to be addressed.
Lewis, Lavine, and Nicholas’ statement to The Ithaca Voice reads, “We remain nimble and committed to the continual process of recalibrating City government to the bold sustainability goals before us. We likewise remain steadfast in our policies that strictly prohibit workplace discrimination, and our commitment to inclusiveness and diversity in City leadership and staff.”
For Aguirre-Torres, the conclusion to this chapter in his career is different, “What we uncovered was a series of challenges that I think anybody in any city, not only in Ithaca, will find. At the end of the day, it’s people. It’s people that believe strongly in the status quo, and that are afraid of any disruption.”
He said, “It’s not fair to promise a Green New Deal and backpedal.”