ITHACA, N.Y.—Demonstrations by angry city employees two weeks ago have sparked a fair amount of internal strife within the City of Ithaca’s leadership, pitting Mayor-elect Laura Lewis, City Attorney Ari Lavine and the city’s Common Council against each other, all while the city’s employees retain their initial complaints: that they feel mistreated by the city as workers, morale is at dire levels, and that the city’s bargaining tactics are unfairly harsh.

Common Council members penned a letter Thursday to Lewis expressing their understanding of the city’s financial position and that the city’s negotiating team has “dutifully executed their responsibilities as delegated, and their actions as employees must not be conflated with their personal opinions on city matters.” But their point seems to be that the direction given to that negotiating team in its interactions with the city’s labor unions — policy set by former Mayor Svante Myrick and carried on by Lewis (according to Lavine) — is misguided at its core.

Council’s letter is the only tangible outcome so far from the tumult over the last two weeks, though Lavine is also likely to be removed from the city’s bargaining team so that a third-party outside counsel can lead negotiations with labor unions, which would come upon Lavine’s own recommendation. The rest of the negotiating team will remain intact. A resolution on the topic will be presented to the City Administration Committee on Nov. 30.

The letter, signed by a majority of council but not all members, plainly calls out Lavine’s unprecedented 13-minute speech delivered Nov. 9 but also critiques Lewis as well. The letter can be read in full at the bottom of this story.

“The City Attorney’s conduct on Nov. 9, 2022, was inappropriate,” the letter states. “His remarks were hyperbolic and disrespectful, incompatible with our shared values, and sought to interfere with and to silence the authority and voice of council. This behavior must cease. The power of the mayor to negotiate and administer labor agreements with employees, is subject to the approval of Common Council. We expect the Mayor and City Attorney to respect and honor Council’s independent oversight, and to work with council in a collaborative manner. Further, Attorney Lavine’s conduct, and [the Mayor’s] implicit approval of his actions, supports the concerns raised by City employees on Nov. 2.”

Lavine has consistently defended his words, calling the Nov. 2 meeting and the more severe words aimed at him that night an “obscene spectacle.”

The letter is certainly not the declaration of support that Lavine requested at last week’s Nov. 9 Common Council meeting, during his lengthy and fiery response to criticism from the previous meeting. An emphasis in his speech was that council needed to make amends for supporting the employees who delivered more searing attacks on Lavine. Lewis has steadfastly supported Lavine, both issuing a press release condemning certain comments from workers and delivering her own thoughts in-person on Nov. 9 that echoed that sentiment.

One example that has been particularly discussed among council members was the explicit calls for Lavine’s resignation or firing, met with applause at the Common Council meeting. Council members have acknowledged that either they, or Lewis in her role of running the meeting, should have stepped in at that point and spoken against that sentiment.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who helped compose the letter along with Alderpersons Robert Cantelmo and Jeffrey Barken, made personal comments at Wednesday’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (meant to be separate from council’s letter) that apologized for allowing those comments to go unaddressed at the meeting but also stating that Lewis has a responsibility to stop those types of attacks in the moment. (Clarification: The initial version of this story stated that Brock led the effort to write the letter)

She also lamented Lavine’s comments and stated outright that the relationship between council and the mayor-elect is in a bad position, though that has been somewhat obvious for some time, even before the meetings this month that lit the fuse publicly.

“The powers and duties of the Mayor are subject to the approval of Common Council,” Brock said Wednesday, referring to the previous week’s meeting and Lavine’s tirade. “As elected representatives, it is incumbent upon the Mayor to cultivate a collaborative and collegial relationship with Council. Instead, we were subject to a hostile, and disrespectful lecture by the City Attorney. I feel the meeting was orchestrated to intimidate our members and silence the voice of council. This treatment of council is unacceptable and must stop.” 

As for the problematic comments cited by all involved, Lewis did not stop them at the time, though she did precede Lavine’s speech with her own comments of “disappointment” in city employees who harshly criticized him while thanking others for bringing their concerns forward.

“We unequivocally support the first amendment rights of our city employees and all members of the public to seek redress of grievances and petition their elected leaders to modify policy,” it reads. “We underscore, with equal commitment, that personal attacks are unacceptable and we should have said that at the meeting.”

The letter was signed by six of the nine members of council, excluding Alderpersons Patrick Mehler (who is soon to be replaced by incoming council member Tiffany Chen Kumar for one year before all members are up for re-election in 2023 after redistricting), Phoebe Brown and Rob Gearhart.

“The status quo is not sustainable”

Some in the community may have anticipated that Lavine’s job may be in jeopardy. But a theme among council members since last week’s meeting is that whoever is implementing the bargaining strategies and policies matters less than the policies themselves—especially when those policies yield what has been seen this month, a deeply dissatisfied workforce. Like the local labor unions’ response earlier this week, council’s letter does not call for personnel changes to be made—though Lavine serves at the will of the mayor alone and council does not hold hiring/firing power over him.

“It is our firm belief that the employment policy direction, as well as the current negotiating strategy approach, are not conducive to a collaborative and supportive negotiation process, let alone an ideal working environment,” the letter continues. “The status quo is not sustainable.”

Asked for comment on the situation, Lewis and Lavine both pointed to the fact that Lavine will be leaving the negotiating team as a signal that the relations between the city and its unions will be healthier going forward, though there was little else included in their statements.

Lavine insisted that his speech at the meeting Nov. 9 was a “necessary response to the attack and its mishandling” by council at the meeting Nov. 2. Lavine told council in a letter that he thinks it is “not in the best interests of the city” to have him continue leading the negotiations.

“Council has a role in approving labor contracts, and across the past decade I have consulted with Council many times while following the Mayor’s direction in contract negotiations,” Lavine said. “In light of my recommendation that the City retain outside counsel to conduct labor contract negotiations, I am optimistic that Common Council’s role in the process going forward will be as productive as it has long been.”

A secondary note to consider is how the city’s labor relations continue forward without Lavine and with a changing structure that will now include a city manager thanks to the successful referendum on Nov. 8.

“It is important to acknowledge the need to restructure Council policy oversight in light of the transition toward a city manager system,” said Cantelmo in a statement. “I underscore the value city leadership has for all its employees and it is my sincere hope that we can move forward together to do the hard work of improving employee morale and quality of life.”

Matt Butler

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