ITHACA, N.Y.—The city’s five labor unions have penned a joint letter responding to City Attorney Ari Lavine in the first official fallout from Lavine’s speech last week condemning certain city worker complaints at November’s first Common Council meeting, calling the meeting an “obscene spectacle.”

The union letter, signed by Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association President Kevin Kohler, Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Thomas Condzella, City Executive Association President Jeanne Grace, CSEA DPW Unit President Justin Perkins and CSEA Admin Unit President Courtney McGuire, adds to the voices calling for changes in City Hall’s bargaining tactics with its unions. It can be read in full at the bottom of this article.

There has certainly been some concern about Lavine’s position with the city, but the union’s letter does not call for his ouster or resignation, instead focusing more on demanding better treatment by Lavine and city leaders.

After listing a litany of grievances with worker treatment and Lavine’s words, the unions do strike a note of hope that there is a path forward, particularly partnering with members of Common Council.

But before that, the letter is largely another salvo between the unions and City Hall in what has, ostensibly, been a fomenting battle for years that has blasted into the public eye over the last two weeks.

“The City of Ithaca has reached a crossroads. There are widespread vacancies across all city departments which have led to mandatory overtime, costly contracting out of services, and incredibly low morale among all city workers,” the letter reads. “Notably, the Department of Public Works alone is down 30 positions and Ithaca Police Department staffing is down almost 30 percent over the past decade, all while our communi`ty continues to grow and the demand for public services increases.”

The letter continues to claim the city has an “anti-worker agenda” that has been “far-reaching and devastating,” making city employment a toxic work environment overall.

Lavine, in comments at last week’s abnormal Common Council meeting, went on a prepared tirade against personal attacks that were levied at him by certain city employees at the previous week’s meeting and called on Common Council to publicly support him. Lavine found himself in the crosshairs of city employees and their complaints over pay, benefits and general treatment because of his role at the head of the city’s negotiating team that interacts with unions—though Lavine insisted that his conduct as part of the negotiating team is at the direction of, and in collaboration with, city leadership, naming both former Mayor Svante Myrick and current Mayor-elect Laura Lewis.

He blasted council members for backing the workers during the meeting as well, though he drew a somewhat murky line between those workers who addressed him “respectfully” and those that more directly criticized him. As of this writing, there has been no statement of any kind from Common Council members regarding Lavine.

At the meeting, Lavine finished his comments, which followed similar but more measured words from Lewis, and the meeting went into a four-hour executive session. When they reemerged, the 2023 budget was promptly passed in a brief 20-minute session near 11 p.m., a week after the vote had been delayed due to the aforementioned dozens of worker complaints.

Union leaders thanked Common Council members for their support during the meeting (though that did particularly raise Lavine’s ire), and said that some members had reached out to better assess the workers’ complaints.

“Unfortunately, the city attorney and mayor continue to be close-minded and negative,” the letter continues. “In the City Attorney’s statement, a mostly self-serving and divisive response made from a position of power and authority, we were appalled to hear Ithaca’s public servants who were advocating for their community, their livelihoods and their families likened to a ‘mob’ engaged in an ‘obscene spectacle.'”

They also challenged Lewis. “We also question the judgment of any newly elected mayor who would conduct their first public meeting in this fashion, both permitting and promoting strong anti-labor rhetoric against the city’s own workforce, in a closed meeting that allowed for no public comment or response from council members.”

Matt Butler

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