ITHACA, N.Y.—Until Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, replacing City Attorney Ari Lavine on Ithaca’s negotiation team with an outside attorney seemed like the clearest step the city was going to take in an effort to reduce friction between it and its public service employees.

But labor leaders disagree. During Common Council’s public comment section they, in fact, indicated that they would like to see the council move towards a different model of contract negotiations where attorneys aren’t present at all. 

Jeanne Grace, Ithaca’s City Forester and President of the City Executive Association, asked council to consider a myriad of other options, like letting the City of Ithaca’s HR director Schelley Michell-Nunn lead the negotiation team, or soon-to-be chief of staff Deb Mohlenoff. She also asked that a council liaison be added to labor negotiations so that Common Council can have “first hand knowledge of each side’s position.”

Grace said, “Ask yourself if simply swapping out one lawyer for another is going to rebuild the trust between public workers and the city administration.”

Their concerns, generally, seemed to be that changing Lavine out for another lawyer would only be a surface-level change, and that the strategies the city has taken in negotiations would remain the same. 

Kevin Koehler, President of the Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association, asked council to delay the vote, saying that replacing Lavine on the negotiation team, “does show a step in the right direction. I just don’t think it’s complete enough or is an accurate representation of our needs.”

Lavine was pulled into the center of a marathon public comment session in early November, when a flood of city employees came forward complaining of hardball negotiation tactics, resulting in suppressed wages for workers, and hurt city recruitment.. Lavine saw blame directed at him for being the head of the negotiation team, and was accused of being a cause of the challenging negotiation environment. 

Wednesday’s discussion didn’t persuade Common Council to table the vote, but it did evoke a considerable debate that would lead to Ithaca’s electeds slashing the money they were willing to spend on an outside lawyer. The resolution, which originally allocated $110,000 towards retaining outside counsel to replace Lavine through the end of 2023, was amended to reduce that figure down to $60,000. 

To table or not?

Attendance by Common Council at Wednesday’s meeting was irregularly slim. Alderperson Cynthia Brock is traveling, Alderperson Jorge DeFendini was forced to leave the meeting early, and Alderperson Phoebe Brown, recovering from an illness, was attending the meeting remotely, but was periodically in and out, voting on some items and not others. 

Initially, Alderperson Jeffrey Barken moved to table the vote on the resolution, and bring the move back down to the committee level in order to incorporate some of the input labor leaders provided.

Ithaca Mayor-elect Laura Lewis suggested that Common Council shut the door to the public and go into an executive session to discuss labor contract negotiations in more detail. However, the vote ultimately failed, granting the public a candid, if slightly restricted, glimpse of their elected officials weighing how best to proceed with the difficult issue of rethinking the city’s labor negotiation strategy.

Throughout the discussion, Lavine reminded Common Council a couple of times that any Alderpersons that voted against going into executive session had the ability to move to reconsider that vote.

Alderperson Patrick Mehler opened the ensuing discussion with the suggestion that there is no reason the city can’t pursue reforming how labor negotiations are conducted, while also passing the resolution to pay for an outside attorney to resolve the open contract negotiations. Lewis would say that she was “concerned with being able to move the contracts along.” Later she indicated that she thought that union members “want a contract” and that tabling the vote would be counterproductive. 

Currently, the City of Ithaca is negotiating with the Department of Public Works Unit represented by CSEA, the Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association, and the City Executive Association, which is a bargaining unit not represented by a union. 

McGonigal said, “Leadership from all three unions that are in contract negotiations right now came to council tonight, and asked us to table this so that we can talk and come to an understanding, and in the respect of that request, I agree we shouldn’t take long in this, but out of respect for that request, and better labor relations, I think we should table it.”

 Alderperson Rob Gearhart said he wondered if the city’s employees understood just how long the bargaining units in negotiations would have to continue working without a contract if the city pursued establishing a new approach at the bargaining table.

Gearhart ended his point saying, “If it’s pulled out of contingency, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be spent,” meaning that the resolution could be approved but not acted with immediacy. 

McGonigal said that he didn’t have any objection to releasing the $110,000 from the unrestricted contingency fund and waiting to hire outside counsel, but that the situation he wanted to avoid was hiring an attorney and then coming to the point where an attorney is no longer needed.

To this, Lewis said that, “It is my firm understanding that the unions do have legal representation. They do have lawyers at the table.”

In response to a request for comment from The Ithaca Voice, Koehler said that the Firefighters Association only started using a lawyer in the current round of negotiations and has never used an attorney at the bargaining table in the 15 years he’s been with the department. 

“It was only in reaction to the city having an attorney that we finally decided that we needed one,” said Koehler. 

The City Executive Association does not have legal representation.

Barken reiterated his stance that he felt that the city should table the voting item and spend some time looking at a different model for labor contract negotiations that could remove the need for attorneys. 

Alderperson Rob Cantelmo proposed the idea of putting the $110,000 into a restricted contingency fund, which would still require the authorization of Common Council if it were to be used. With the money set aside, Cantelmo suggested that Common Council could mull over the input they received from union leaders and the options before them for at least another month before hiring outside counsel if they chose to do so. 

But in response to this, Lavine said, “I have little doubt, given the urgency that the mayor clearly recognizes in this issue that she will bring onboard outside counsel in a timeframe faster, and than that restricted contingency would permit. So I think counsel needs to be honest with yourself about what its objectives are.”

Lavine suggested that if Common Council were to constrain the use of outside counsel through another route, that a timeline at least be established for when to revisit the topic. 

“And if you are serious about the urgency of addressing labor contract issues right now, not only changing from inside counsel to outside counsel, but change from inside counsel to no counsel — because that is what some of  you are discussing on the turn of the dime — is probably going to slow things down, not speed them up,” said Lavine.

But with the stance of the city’s labor leaders clear, Barken would later say, “I just wonder if parties feel like there is an opportunity to restructure the whole process, they may be inclined to hold out for a better deal, does not want to engage with our outside counsel in a productive way.”

The comment from Barken would prompt Lewis to say that she didn’t feel that in the city’s perspective or from the union’s perspective that there would be any “interest in delaying contacts.”

Other news and notes

  • Common Council passed a law that would allow it to develop a Community Choice Aggregation Implementation Plan as a part of the Ithaca Green New Deal. The plan will result in the city getting to buy energy based on the way its generated, as in through renewable sources like solar or wind.
  • The City of Ithaca will now have a city wide speed limit of 25 mph. Common Council passed the ordinance in its consent agenda with no additional discussion at Wednesday’s meeting.
  • Ithaca’s Common Council approved the allocation of $4 million for the purchase of a site where a new public safety facility will be constructed to replace the existing Ithaca Police Department. The funds for acquiring a site are being derived from the issuance of serial bonds. The future facility is estimated to cost between $20 and $30 million.  
  • The Ithaca Police Department received a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s State Homeland Security Grant Program. The funds will be used for “improved tactical team capabilities” like night vision goggles, as well as training and planning projects. Common Council voted unanimously to accept the funds. 
  • Ithaca’s Common Council voted to approve the Community Justice Center’s 2022 and 2023 Workplan, which includes the development of a real-time public safety community dashboard, evaluating the existing alternatives to law enforcement response when it comes to crisis intervention and implementing a new model, develop a comprehensive community healing plan, among other initiatives.
  • The City of Ithaca approved an additional $20,000 of funding to go towards compensating outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of third party influence in Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety Process. This brings the total spent by the city on the investigation to $70,000.

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