TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—As budget season winds down, the Tompkins County Legislature’s regular meeting on Tuesday saw the final approval of a new Whole Health Department in Tompkins County, as well as an update on the robust response to the Tompkins Community Recovery Fund.

The agenda can be seen here for those who like to follow along, while the full video can be viewed here

Task Force on Ithaca Area Economic Development

There was a brief discussion about membership in a task force that the county is establishing to evaluate the relationship between Tompkins County and the Ithaca Area Economic Development. The task force is being assembled to “evaluate the county’s interest to provide direct, substantial, and/or ongoing financial support to …[IAED], what level should the funding be based on, what is the best way to fund that support, and should any operational changes, conditions or other changes in the relationship between the county and … [IAED] be considered.”

The task force was originally called for in the current Memorandum of Understanding between the county and the IAED, signed in 2019. 

The members of the task force are legislators Amanda Champion, Deborah Dawson, Rich John, Dan Klein and Anne Koreman, Planning and Sustainability coordinator Katie Borgella, Tourism Planner Nick Helmholdt, Airport Director Roxan Noble, Workforce Development Director Rosemary Avila, County Administrator Lisa Holmes and Budget Director Norma Jayne, along with several non-voting members of the county community, like Tompkins Trust Company President and CEO Greg Hartz, Tompkins Chamber President and CEO Jennifer Tavares, and more. 

Notably, all the elected officials on the task force are Democrats, which Republican legislator Mike Sigler objected to, saying that there should be more party diversity on the force and that the non-voting members should be given voting power because of their expertise in the field. 

“What this task force is doing is saying what the county should be paying IAED for services that we want, so that’s why only county representatives have votes, that seems very straightforward to me,” Klein responded. 

Eventually, the task force will come to the legislature with their findings and a larger discussion will take place then, meaning that the three Republicans on the legislature will eventually have a say in the matter. Sigler’s amendment to give the community members voting power failed, but the overall task force was approved. 

Another round of e-mail talks

During his own comments, Sigler revived the conversation about County Communications Director Dominick Recckio’s communications with local media regarding the Reimagining Public Safety process, calling for an outside investigation into the situation. He also reiterated his thoughts that law enforcement was “disrespected” throughout the Reimagining process and that it has hurt recruitment, both sentiments that have been echoed by police themselves.

Initially broached by Ithaca Alderperson Jeffrey Barken in September, there have been concerns raised by a few local politicians, notably all of whom have been apprehensive about or critical of the Reimagining Public Safety reforms, that Recckio has been inappropriately influencing local press coverage of the reforms. 

The genesis of the situation was emails between Recckio and Tompkins Weekly editor Jessica Wickham regarding a column written by Deidra Cross in early August. Recckio pushed back on assertions Cross relayed from Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart and parts of the article were changed after publication, though Recckio did not explicitly request changes be made. 

Cross was initially suspended from Tompkins Weekly after Wickham sought to talk to her about Reckkio’s concerns, but Cross had retained legal counsel before the conversation could occur. Afterwards, her freelance contract was terminated on Sept. 12. 

Tompkins County leadership has fully backed Recckio, while also releasing hundreds of emails between him and local media members including from The Ithaca Voice, Tompkins Weekly, Ithaca Times, 14850.com and the Cornell Daily Sun. More FOIL requests are pending, submitted by Barken, the Ithaca police union and affiliates and others. County Administrator Lisa Holmes and County Attorney Bill Troy have both said the matter has been reviewed and no wrongdoing was found on Recckio’s part. 

Yet Sigler pressed on in comments Tuesday evening, arguing that Recckio’s email comments about two Tompkins Weekly articles, in April and August 2022, had overstepped and deserved further scrutiny from a third party.

“In light of these FOIL documents, I would ask that the county hire an outside counsel to review them, interview the relevant personnel and present the county with not just legal opinions on liability, or lack thereof, but ethical questions as well,” Sigler said, saying that the county can’t be legally accountable for Tompkins Weekly’s actions but ethically he was “not so sure.” 

The matter went moot for a few more speakers before fellow legislator Veronica Pillar responded to Sigler’s comments, the only member of the legislature to do so outside of a brief retort from legislator Mike Lane. Pillar’s comments mostly dealt with Recckio responding to an April column in Tompkins Weekly in which Cross profiled conservative activist Rocco Lucente, which Sigler had also mentioned. Recckio said to Wickham that the column was filled with “lies, misleading statements and unfounded attacks on several topics, under the guise of featuring a harmless ‘activist and writer.’” 

Again, Recckio doesn’t explicitly ask for any changes in the exchange, but does register displeasure with one of Lucente’s statements in particular, that Ithaca is intentionally dismantling its police department, which is indeed untrue insofar as the Reimagining recommendations call for an addition of a small unarmed unit and a restructuring of police leadership. 

Pillar said Recckio shouldn’t be punished or condemned for calling out the amplification of certain things, including white supremacy, obliquely referring to Lucente.

“If we notice this type of rhetoric put out publicly, I think it’s incumbent upon anyone who does to push back and shut that down,” Pillar said. “If some of our county employees are doing that gently, respectfully, keeping in mind that we are here to advance respect and equity and accountability and integrity throughout the county, then I would commend that. […] I’m disappointed that some would see that as a problem.”

Pillar referenced protests that took place in the lead-up to the 2020 election and afterwards, in particular a March 2021 “Back the Blue” rally on the Ithaca Commons that included the burning of a Black Lives Matter flag by now-Republican candidate for Ithaca mayor Zach Winn. Lucente was a frequent speaker and prominent figure at those protests. 

Since early September, these discussions have happened more frequently, featuring a lot of public posturing from certain politicians about the freedom of the press, local journalist autonomy and whether Recckio was guilty of an ethical breach in his communications with reporters and editors locally. But it is impossible to ignore that despite those talks, not a single politician, of any stripe, has reached out to any Ithaca journalist, perhaps other than Cross herself, to actually gauge the press’ reaction to the situation and whether or not they have felt bullied or intimidated by Recckio’s communication with them—including Wickham, the editor of the impacted newspaper. It’s an interesting, for lack of a better word, oversight considering journalists are the supposed harmed party in the situation, at least as far as the politicians have stated it. One would think a good faith review of that conduct would necessitate consulting with the journalists in question. 

Tompkins Community Recovery Fund

Business is booming for the Tompkins Community Recovery Fund, which saw 231 applications submitted for money as the county looks to distribute leftover money from its American Relief Plan Act funds awarded last year. 

Klein said that 80 applications aimed for the lowest amount (under $25,000), another 128 applied for $25,000-250,000, and the remaining 23 asked for over $250,000. The total amount available is $6.6 million, but $34 million has been requested. 

“The committee has our work cut out for us,” Klein said. They will meet three times in November to continue discussion and review of the applications. It’s unclear what kind of strategy the county will employ in terms of potentially asking certain applicants if they are willing to take less and navigating that to approve as many applications as possible, though it’s also possible some will be outright rejected.

“We’ve clearly struck a nerve in the community,” said Legislator Rich John. “Be careful what you wish for. We’re going to have to say ‘No’ to a lot of people. But we’ve triggered something really useful.”

Other news and notes

  • A declaration celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tompkins Girls Hockey Association, declaring November 2022 as Aviation Appreciation Month, and proclaiming Home Health Aide Week and Veterans Week. 
  • After years of waiting, the merger between the Public Health and Mental Health departments was approved, creating the Tompkins County Department of Whole Health. 

Matt Butler

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