ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca’s City Hall has lost one of its most longstanding familiar faces, as Julie Holcomb retired last month from her position as Ithaca City Clerk and Director of Public Information and Technology. Since Oct. 16, 1989, Holcomb has walked through the doors of City Hall ready to tackle a myriad of roles, serving as Deputy City Clerk and then City Clerk under five different mayors of Ithaca.

But the formal titles of her roles don’t seem to accurately describe the value Holcomb held to the city. For one example, Holcomb was a mainstay at city meetings, possessing the crucial but undervalued skill of being able to answer virtually any question that sounded like “Didn’t we do [something vaguely related to the current topic of discussion] a while back?” For those who don’t diligently tune in every week, there are many questions like that—some of the same questions have even been asked repeatedly over the years.

“In a way, I did kind of act like an internal historian for city staff, I could find the resources they were looking for,” Holcomb said. “The adage is very true that history repeats itself.”

The daughter of former Ithaca Mayor Ed Conley, who served from 1971 to 1979, Holcomb said she had always wanted to be in politics. Then, upon further examination, she realized her interest was actually tangential to politics.

“I always wanted to be in politics because of my dad,” she said. “Then when I went to college and I was studying American political systems, I realized that maybe it’s not politics I like, it’s government that I love. […] I kind of grew up in City Hall. My dad was mayor from the time I was in third grade until I was in high school […] So when I came to work for the city, I already knew half the people there.”

In fact, Holcomb says with a hint of exasperation, she finds “very little value in politics when there’s so much work to be done.” What she can’t and could never find in politics, she said, she was able to find in actual government work.

In a 2015 profile with The Ithaca Voice, which called her the “gatekeeper of the city,” Holcomb described her siblings and her spending summers at City Hall starting from third grade onward. That smoothed the transition for Holcomb when she was hired as Deputy City Clerk at age 24.

Holcomb also noted that the longevity of employees with the city at that time, somewhat a bygone characteristic of the era, helped introduce her to the job and the culture in City Hall. She credited Calista “Cookie” Paolangelli, with teaching her how to navigate the finer aspects of the job—and how to mitigate the “Irish temper” Holcomb admits to occasionally carrying.

“She was a wonderful mentor, and I owe a lot of the successes of my career to her,” Holcomb said. Of course, she also mentions her father’s influence on her start and career.

“His love [for the community] inspired me to feel the same way,” Holcomb said. “A lot of times, throughout my career, I would draw on that to say that these are my people, my neighbors, people I went to school with, my friends, my grandparents’ friends. That informed a lot about how I approached my work.”

But there were challenges. Holcomb assumed the role of Director of Public Information and Technology when the clerk’s office was merged with that department during the city’s restructuring of 2014. Holcomb always supported the idea conceptually, she said, but the actual implementation was a challenge for both her and the staff members—though she gives credit to them for eventually making it feasible.

“That was how we were able to pull this off,” Holcomb said of the staff’s buy-in and cooperation during the transition. “Logistically, it was difficult to work everything out, but it turned out terrific.”

But the work, and the change, inevitably took a toll on Holcomb. She called the COVID-19 pandemic, while certainly difficult and a trying time for the entire world, a time of opportunity to reset and improve some government practices that had become stagnant. But it seems to have sapped some of Holcomb’s enthusiasm, among other factors like a new structure of city government with the City Manager role coming in and all members of Common Council and the mayor up for election in 2023 thanks to the redistricting process.

“This is how I knew it was time for me to retire, I would usually embrace those opportunities and be excited about what was ahead and how we could use it to the best advantage,” she said. “But with the changes that are coming ahead, it was the first time where I said, ‘Huh, I’m not excited about this. I’m really tired, and I don’t know that I have anything new to bring to the table.’ It is time to pass the torch.”

Now that Holcomb can relax, at least a little bit, she can still appreciate the parts of the job, even the notoriously exhausting functions of local government, that she feels truly meant something to people. Additionally, she owes her family a bunch of time that she missed while attending late-night public meetings, taking notes and answering questions. She’s not resentful of her time with the city (though she said her family might be), but she gradually came to understand that it was probably time to step away for the good of herself and her family, while maintaining faith and pride in the work she did.

“There’s so much opportunity to do good things,” she said of the capability of government to benefit its constituents, when utilized properly. “It’s where my heart is. So many people rely on it every day, whether they know it or not, and most of them don’t. But it’s so rewarding because it touches the lives of every person in the community.”

Matt Butler

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