This is an op-ed written by Laura Branca, project director for the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and Anke Wessels, executive director of the Center for Transformative Action in relation to the City of Ithaca’s investigation into the Reimagining Public Safety report. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

Dorothy Cotton Institute and Center for Transformative Action wish to express frustration with Reimagining Public Safety Investigation Report by attorney Smith and responses from Mayor Lewis (City of Ithaca News, 12. 8, 22) and Alderperson Brock (Ithaca Times, 12.15.22). 

We agree that governments must have checks and balances to control their property and manage finances transparently. We also want safeguards to prevent government officials from taking gifts from private entities as a quid pro quo to further private interest over public. Neither of these concerns pertain to DCI or CTA’s role in supporting the Reimagining Working Group process, despite Brock’s continued allegations of potential wrongdoing.  

DCI applied for a grant from the Park Foundation to provide honoraria to community representatives and payment to the Co-leads of the RPS Working Group. The funds were ours, not the City’s, therefore not subject to the City’s management and control. As a community partner, we stepped up to provide fair and just compensation to Working Group members the City wouldn’t pay.  We are a social justice organization dedicated to supporting marginalized communities’ engagement and leadership in civic life for positive social change. Our grant furthered inclusion and equity. Although omitted from Smith’s report, Brock’s complaint and local media’s reporting, the Working Group’s community participants were the only members not paid from tax-payer funds. Representatives of the Ithaca Police Department, Common Council, and City staff all participated as City employees or officials. 

To be clear, EO 203 stipulates that engaging people with lived experience is integral to the legitimacy of the RPS outcomes. Compensating them for their time and knowledge is best practice. Therefore, CTA and DCI helped ensure, not undermine, the integrity of the RPS Working Group recommendations.  

In our professional experience, maintaining confidentiality is valuable in conversations between participants who have unequal power and fraught relationships. Honoring confidentiality fosters trust and frankness. As a matter of professional integrity, we did not communicate with any Working Group members, including the Co-leads, about their RPS work. We didn’t know who the recipients of honoraria would be until we received their invoices, weeks after their last workgroup meetings.  We didn’t influence their participation, as Ms. Smith acknowledges, or appear to have, as Ms. Brock insists.  And, since the community representatives were not designated City Officials, our actions did not cause a breach of the City’s ethics rules concerning gifts to government officials.  

To develop our grant budget and narrative, we communicated with trusted City staff.  We budgeted for honoraria based on the anticipated number of community representatives and meetings. Our budget covered 50% of the Co-leads’ fees as a cost-sharing approach because the City had suffered a significant pandemic-related revenue shortfall.  

In order to provide a $10,000 honorarium to the Co-leads, CTA needed to put a contract in place.  While Ms. Smith rightly points out as problematic the standard language in our vendor contract that asserts CTA’s ownership of the work developed, she failed to mention that the actual work detailed in the contract tasked the Co-leads with developing a final plan and presentation for Common Council, not CTA. The contract’s timetable had benchmarks for interim presentations to Common Council. The contract stated payment would be made in a lump-sum after a final presentation and report were delivered to Common Council, without check-ins or approvals by DCI or CTA. Nothing in this description supports Brock’s supposition that the Co-leads’ work could have been “conducted at the direction and for the benefit of [CTA]” (Brock, Dec 15, 2022). Instead, it is clear that their scope of work was determined and directed by the City for the benefit of Common Council.  

We agree with Brock and Lewis that new policies and processes are needed to ensure that informal partnerships between nonprofits and the City are better-structured and to clarify when and whether workgroup and committee members should be paid for their time and expertise. What concerns us is that in doing so they will buckle down on the inequitable status quo rather than transform it.    

More equitable outcomes emerge from policies and processes that reduce economic and logistical barriers for people with lived experience to participate in government workgroups and committees. Insisting they volunteer is an exclusionary, exploitative practice that perpetuates structural racism and classism, especially where others participating in their ‘professional’ capacity are being paid for their time. Other government entities recognize this inequity and have transformed their policies. We recommend that the City and County study and adapt the federal guidelines and practices we shared with the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board as well as the May, 2022 guidelines from Washington State’s Office Of Equity

More equitable outcomes would come from processes for increased, rather than decreased, partnerships with nonprofit organizations  (See Pozil & Hacker, 2017 pg. 67).  These collaborations are essential in light of the socioeconomic challenges communities are facing. We strongly encourage Mayor Lewis and Common Council to develop structures to support such partnerships for the benefit of our community.   

Equitable outcomes require rebuilding the trust these adversarial investigations and inflammatory public statements have eroded. The majority of those targeted, whose integrity was questioned and whose reputations smeared, are people from racially and economically marginalized and under-represented identity groups. The former Mayor, the director of DCI, the Co-leads, and majority of community participants are Black and Brown minoritized people whose interests EO 203 mandated municipalities to engage and respect. The City discredited these community voices and chiseled the Co-leads out of their professional services fee. We see this as a colossal act of bad faith and a reckless attempt to obstruct the implementation of the RPS Working Group’s recommendations. To begin a path of repair, we ask that Mayor Lewis, Alderperson Brock and all members of Common Council apologize to all whose ethics have been maligned, and thank them for the precious time, effort, and good faith they dedicated to ensuring the relevance, unbiased nature, and deep integrity of the RPS Working Group’s process and findings.