ITHACA, N.Y. — It might be best that City Attorney Ari Lavine no longer heads the team that negotiates labor contracts between the City of Ithaca and the unions that represent the workers across its public service departments. Replacing him in this role even comes at Lavine’s own recommendation. 

“In light of recent events, I do not believe that it is in the City’s best interests for labor contract negotiations to be led by the City attorney going forward,” wrote Lavine in a letter to Ithaca’s City Administration Committee. 

The letter was attached to a resolution that puts $110,000 towards hiring outside counsel to lead the city’s contract negotiations team through the end of 2023. It was passed by the City Administration Committee on Wednesday by a unanimous vote, though the local labor unions offered some vocal objections to the plan at the meeting, and will now advance to Common Council, which will vote on it Dec. 7.

“We’re not doing anything in perpetuity, we’re seeing how this works,” Alderperson George McGonigal said, acknowledging that the city is going through a particularly busy negotiating time right now. 

Much of the discussion Wednesday acknowledged what has been clear since early November: that Lavine’s position on the city’s union negotiation team was becoming untenable, evolving into more of an obstacle to progress than a facilitator of it, though Lavine has noted that he is simply carrying out the strategy given to him by the city’s leadership.

Mayor-elect Laura Lewis said the outside counsel would be picked based on experience working with municipalities, but has not been officially chosen yet. Lewis said it was an outgrowth of the calls from city employees and Common Council to make a change in the negotiating team, and said she “fully supports” the measure. Lavine was present via Zoom at the meeting but did not make any comment beyond the recommendation of the move in his letter. 

“This is very good, I’m glad that we recognize that this is a necessary step to maintaining trust and good negotiations with our public workers, but I think it’s disappointing and sad that we had to come to this so that we could keep and maintain public trust in our processes,” Alderperson Jorge Defendini said. “While I do think its necessary, it is very difficult. This is one step that we need to do to maintain our relations with our public sector unions. More needs to be done in that regard.” 

Lavine pointed out that Myrick asked him to take the role initially nearly a decade ago after Lavine was hired, but that he agreed that it was time to make a change. City Controller Steve Thayer said that the negotiating team has shifted a few times during his time with the city, acknowledging that the last time the city used outside counsel for bargaining negotiations it “didn’t work well.”

McGonigal asked if it would be helpful to have a member of council present in the negotiations, not as a negotiator but as a liaison to ensure that council would remain informed of negotiations. Lewis said it wouldn’t, but that the negotiating team would try to give more frequent updates to council (though Lewis isn’t technically a member of the negotiating team). It is unclear who will serve as the lead of the negotiating team. 

“We want to understand what our objectives are going into negotiations, what are the perceived challenges in the negotiations,” said Alderperson Jeffrey Barken. “Just having that information up front makes us that much more aware of what’s at stake. […] We want perspective. So I think we could structure some type of liaison role that would be keeping Council abreast of upcoming negotiations.”

Lewis confirmed that she would still be the “point person” going forward, not at the bargaining table but apparently serving as oversight for the outside counsel who will be handling negotiations along with HR Director Schelley Michell-Nunn and Thayer. 

While committee members were universally supportive of Lavine’s suggestion to step away from the negotiating team, not everyone in the room was. Local labor leaders were the only people to address the committee during public comment, with Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Thomas Condzella reading a prepared statement that touched on the still-simmering tensions between the city and its employee unions. 

“Our foundation is cracking and we need to take decisive, intentional and focused actions to repair it before the house caves in,” Condzella said. 

The letter went on to state that while the unions appreciate the effort that the city and Common Council is making to improve relations and negotiations, they fear that replacing Lavine with someone else will just put a different face on the same negotiating tactics, ultimately resulting in the same tensions just from a new voice. 

“Simply accepting the resolution placed in front of you penned by the City Attorney to change the in-person players at the table will not ensure the much-needed move away from the destructive philosophy and culture that has been allowed to persist in City Hall, unchecked, for several years,” followed Jeanne Grace, the City Forester and president of the City Executive Association. “The resolution in front of you may have the appearance of change, but we fear that the spirit behind it is misguided. We want to have faith and trust in our elected officials to take the right first step in a long journey towards repairing our community and bettering the treatment of workers.”

Paying outside attorneys might irritate the fiscal sensibilities of many on Common Council, making a choice on whether or not to sub Lavine out seems to have become a necessary one. 

Throughout the month of November, Ithaca’s City Hall has seen tensions boil over with strongly worded public statements and written letters emerge between the City Attorney, Mayor Laura Lewis, Common Council, and as well as workers and leadership from the city’s public service sectors, like the Police and Fire Departments, and Department of Public Works (DPW).

The catalyst for the last few tumultuous weeks is a watershed Nov. 2 Common Council meeting where dozens of workers from all of the city’s public service sectors crowded into the Common Council chambers and monopolized the public comment section with complaints on how they felt over a decade of hardball negotiation tactics have depressed their wages and crippled their ability to recruit. The result: burnout and abysmally low morale across numerous city departments, particularly DPW which has dozens of vacant positions. 

The workers cast shame on Ithaca’s Common Council for not being attentive to the issues that have roiled the city’s workforce in recent years, and several of these city employees cast ire and blame on Lavine for these challenging working conditions, with one employee saying that Lavine’s tactics have “ramrodded everybody down the street.”

Common Council was slated to vote on a record breaking budget of over $90 million at their Nov. 2 meeting, but the demonstration of city employees would leave the Common Council shocked and ultimately derail the scheduled vote for another week.

Lavine, who was hired as City Attorney in 2011, attended the Nov .2  Common Council meeting remotely over Zoom, and offered a tempered impromptu response to the frustrated crowd of city employees. He primarily aimed to clarify what he felt were points made out of context and or based on hearsay, and establish that a public meeting was not the appropriate place for the “intricate details of a labor contract” to be discussed. That was followed by a written statement from Acting Mayor Lewis on Nov. 3, the day following the demonstration. In it, she acknowledged the strain city workers have been experiencing, calling their dedication and perseverance humbling, but wrote that she was “appalled” to see the morale issues across the city departments “twisted into offensive and unfounded and personal attacks” on Lavine. 

Lewis also condemned certain members of Common Council that “failed miserably” to convey the challenge in balancing the city’s budget, avoiding overtaxing city residents, and paying city employees more. 

The next episode unfolded at the Nov. 9 meeting of Common Council, before council was to pass the delayed budget. Lavine launched into an exasperated 14 minute prepared response that mixed a defense of his work with an angry rebuke of Common Council. While some city employees conducted themselves respectfully, Lavine noted, he labeled the previous week’s demonstration  as an “obscene spectacle” and an act of “rumor fueled character assassination.” He saved his most blistering criticisms for Ithaca’s elected officials, saying that, “a critical mass of Common Council commended the most outrageous and threatening of the speakers for so-called ‘bravery’ last week.”

Lavine made clear that his work as head of the negotiation team is done at the direction of the Mayor’s office, and that raising taxes to improve the pay and benefits of city employees is within the power of Common Council to do. Any blame that is aimed at him, he implied, should be aimed the City’s elected officials since he is acting on orders. He called on council to condemn the Nov. 2 “mob attack” and said council had “severely imperiled” the city’s ability to bargain with its unions. 

The meeting would then be rushed into a closed-door four hour executive session, before Common Council returned to hurriedly vote on the city’s budget, which passed 9 to 1, with only Alderperson Cynthia Brock opposed. 

Afterwards, instead of a condemnation of a mob attack though, six members of Common Council would sign onto a Nov. 17 letter which called Lavine’s conduct on Nov. 9 “inappropriate” and his remarks “hyperbolic and disrespectful,” and Lewis’ implicit approval of his actions as cause for concern. However, the letter — signed by Alderpersons Brock, Jeffrey Barken, Robert Cantelmo, George McGonigal, Ducson Nguyen, and Jorge DeFendini — does move to make Common Council accountable for not having stepped in for speaking against the sentiment that Lavine needing to step down or be fired. 

The call came from Zach Winn, a conservative activist in local politics who ran on the Republican ticket against Lewis for a one year term for Mayor, which she handily won. Winn’s statement received much applause from the packed chambers of the Common Council on Nov. 2. The letter from Council also points out that Lewis did not step in at that time either. 

Matt Butler

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

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn