Update: More context has been added to some of the answers provided by candidates below.

ITHACA, N.Y.—With just a few days before early voting begins on Saturday, June 12, three candidates for city-wide office joined a Zoom call on Monday evening to discuss the largest issues impacting the city and try to appeal to local voters.

Early voting begins June 12 on the Democratic primary, which, considering the city’s voter base, usually is an extremely good indicator of who will emerge victorious in the general election in the fall. The event was held by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.

Fifth Ward—Robert Cantelmo and Marty Hiller are both vying to fill Deb Mohlenoff’s seat when after she announced she wouldn’t be seeking another term, and both spent the night sparring over whose vision best unites the dual tenets of progressivism and pragmatism.

Cantelmo, a Cornell grad student studying Government, touted that he is currently the Public Safety and Information Commission chairperson, arguing that has given him vital experience in municipal government—as well as his previous work in foreign aid. He said that he supports “evidence-based progressive policies.”

Meanwhile, Hiller shot back that she is the “progressive choice for Ward 5, and also the practical choice.” She said her background as the president of the Ithaca Community Gardens has also helped her navigate local government, noting the recent long-term lease the gardens secured after years of limbo.

The first question, perhaps predictably, was about public safety and the success (or failure, depending on your point of view) of the law enforcement reform effort. Hiller said she appreciates the focus on mental health services throughout the process, and that the only way to enact lasting beneficial change is to ensure that nobody feels left out of the process—something law enforcement figures have argued often. She said that law enforcement needs a cultural change, including locally.

“One of the first very important steps is going to be finding a way to depolarize the situation, by listening carefully to both sides, so that we can get people to a state where we’re pulling together toward a shared goal instead of fighting each other,” Hiller said.

Cantelmo, similar to Hiller, said that the implementation process is even more important than the fact that the reforms were approved. That implementation process could be crucial in building trust in the overall reforms, Cantelmo said.

Transportation was another significant part of the conversation, especially as rising living costs in Ithaca have continued to push residents either farther from downtown or out of the city entirely. Hiller suggested that necessary businesses need to be built closer to the city’s core, a suggestion that she felt went hand-in-hand with the city’s transportation and affordable housing struggles. Cantelmo similarly stated that making Ithaca more walkable, could lessen the need for public transportation services without necessitating large city investment.

“Any time we’re promoting walkability and promoting mixed-use space, we’re making life easier for residents as well as reducing emissions and our carbon footprint,” Cantelmo said. “The ultimate answer is that people need to get to food, they need to get to basic supplies to live their lives. If those things aren’t in an accessible area, we can do this in a multi-pronged way, but we need to do it in a way where those people aren’t put out.”

Both candidates supported expanded and more affordable childcare options, theoretically funded through New York State.

As for the burgeoning effort to create a city manager position, which would theoretically be an appointed position by the mayor and approved by council in order to take some duties off Mayor Svante Myrick’s plate and provide a more dedicated staffer for City Hall logistical concerns. Hiller said she would trust the mayor and council to gauge how things are working in City Hall and what strengths and shortcomings are in the current system. Cantelmo strongly supported the position’s creation, as long as it was approved via referendum.

The two candidates also spoke on the topic of waste reduction. Cantelmo pushed back on the thought that the paramount concern is personal responsibility, instead probing the thought that larger structural mentalities are necessary to change to make a tangible impact on waste and pollution.

“Yes we should all do our part to reduce our own output there, but the real burden doesn’t lie with the individual, it’s societal that we should play a part in bringing attention to,” Cantelmo said.

Hiller touched on similar sentiments during her answer.

“There’s lead pollution throughout all of Fall Creek, almost all of our housing stock was built in an hour when lead paint was still the norm,” Hiller said. “Addressing that problem is really challenging because it’s so wide-spread.”

Hiller touted her leadership background throughout the event, saying that her community service gives her a broad range of experience and skills in relevant areas to the job as a member of Common Council. She and Cantelmo lightly sparred over how to best approach the start of their terms if elected—while Cantelmo said he envisioned having plans to push and propose right at the outset of his term, Hiller said she disagreed with that strategy.

“I don’t see that as necessarily being the right thing to do, because if you’re coming in with a plan up front there’s a substantial risk that the plan is not going to be appropriate or workable,” Hiller said. “When someone brings up a significant concern, I think it’s important to sit down with them, and listen, and ensure you really understand the underlying concern, not just the position they’re taking, because often there’s more than one way to address a particular concern.”

First Ward —The First Ward field was smaller than anticipated on Monday night. Two candidates who had previously announced their campaigns, local activist Yasmin Rashid and Solidarity Slate member Shaniya Foster, were both absent from the event. That left just incumbent Cynthia Brock, a Democrat who has served on Common Council since 2011.

To adjust, Brock more or less participated in the debate from a First Ward perspective, even though she had no opponents actually at the event. She expanded on her position that while addressing affordable housing is important, she views it as a symptom of deeper issues that need fixing as opposed to a root issue itself.

“For me, our focus on affordable housing distracts us from the larger issue, in my mind, which is if we don’t grow our economy and grow opportunities for people to get full-time living wage, benefited positions,” Brock said, encouraging that the deeper economic issues are more damning than the lack of affordable housing. “If we rely on building an economy where people are dependent on several gig positions to make ends meet (…) the fact is, no matter how much affordable housing we provide, we’ll never meet the needs of that economy, it’s not sustainable.”

As for waste reduction, Brock said that she acknowledges the city has a responsibility to focus on waste reduction since much of the city’s waste is trucked elsewhere for landfill disposal. She also noted her service on the Ithaca Wastewater Treatment Facility’s Special Joint Committee.

As for short-term future reasons for seeking re-election, Brock said she deeply wanted to be involved in the rezoning of South Hill, which is on the horizon, as well as the multi-faceted revitalization of the West End. She also cited the Redesigning Public Safety process and the impending redistricting of Ithaca as a result of the 2020 Census results.

“It is important to me that when we look at how we redesign our electoral government, that we make sure we balance the voices of year-round residents with the density of students, who live in clusters and can dramatically skew the Census results,” Brock said.

She also supported the potential creation of a city manager position (though she wonders about the resulting role of the mayor and chair of the Common Council positions) as well as the prioritizing of state-funded childcare options.

Matt Butler

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