ITHACA, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board has deemed that at least some of the requests for it to investigate the Reimagining Public Safety initiative and former Mayor Svante Myrick on a list of allegations brought forward by Alderperson Cynthia Brock are sufficient enough to warrant an investigation.

The Ethics Advisory Board held its first meeting on Tuesday since County Attorney Bill Troy released his opinion on May 9 that the Board had jurisdiction over the complaints filed by Brock, and was charged in responding to them. 

Brock wrote to Troy on April 12, raising a raft of points she would like to see reviewed by the Ethics Board which amount to an overarching allegation that the Reimagining Public Safety Process — a project of the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County — has been tainted by ethical violations, and has been influenced by third-party interests and finances. 

Without a formal board or body from within the City of Ithaca that would issue an advisory opinion on the allegations, the charge falls to the county’s Ethics Advisory Board

With little deliberation, the Ethics Advisory Board unanimously agreed that there was, in the words of Ethics Advisory Board member Katie Walpole, “at least one, possibly several more, ethics questions raised” by Brock that warranted investigation.

The five member board is composed of four Tompkins County residents, and one county elected official, Tompkins County Legislator Rich John (D-District 4). John is the chair of the Board. Ultimately, the power of the Ethics Advisory Board only extends to issuing an advisory opinion on the matters they investigate. 

“We can issue an advisory opinion, and it does not carry the force of law, we can’t make any municipality do anything. Our opinion is an opinion. The city is clearly free to ignore our advisory opinion if we issue one,” said John on Tuesday, later adding, “And just like people, governments can be uncomfortable taking advice.”

Tompkins County Legislator Rich John, Chair of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board (06/07/2022). Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Despite the board’s advisory opinion not holding actionable power on its own, the previously obscure board has been thrust into the spotlight of local politics. The responsibilities of the board seem to be infrequently activated. In 2021, the board only met once to review the Financial Disclosures Statements of officials and employees before approving them to be sent to the New York State Comptroller’s office.

At the start of the meeting, John opened with an acknowledgment of the potential conflict of interest his position as an elected official bakes into the Ethics Advisory Board, while also acknowledging that a county legislator is required to be on the board by New York State law.

“There is an inherent political nature to the ethics advisory board. I think a political actor is included because we’re asked to make what at heart  are political recommendations about what we want our government to be, and how government is supposed to work,” said John. “And from that standpoint, having someone involved who has an understanding of governmental processes does make some sense.”

Going forward, the board has decided that it will issue requests for information from all “interested parties” concerned in the investigations Brock has called for. The board openly stated that the City of Ithaca, and Tompkins County governments would be two of the interested parties in the investigations that it pursues, though early in the meeting deemed it appropriate to determine the remainder of the interested parties in executive session, excluding the watchful eyes and keen ears of reporters and the public.

While John set a standard of conduct for the Board early in the meeting, saying that he would like for the investigations to “proceed with as much transparency as possible,” the board supported his suggestion to determine the list of interested parties privately in an executive session in order to allow them an opportunity to respond before further details of the investigations were released.

City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock watches the first meeting of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board. Brock brought forward request for investigation into the Reimagining Public Safety process on April 12. (06/07/2022) Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The Ethics Advisory Board will be issuing “requests for information” to the interested parties to support their investigation. John stated that he would prefer for people to come forward voluntarily, although the board does have the power to subpoena individuals at the approval of the County Legislature. The list of interested parties can grow and requests for information from the board can happen fluidly throughout the investigation process.

The board agreed to a timeline of issuing requests for information by June 17, allowing 20 days for a response, then review the information and prepare to reconvene on July 29 with the commitment that all the information they gather will be made available to the public. John stated a couple times that he would like for the process of reviewing Brock’s requests for investigations to be done swiftly. The Tompkins County Code of Ethics recommends that a written decision should be rendered “within 90 days after the conclusion of the fact gathering process.”

Zach Winn, the sole Republican candidate for Ithaca Mayor in November’s special election, appeared at the start of the meeting to highlight the importance that the results of this investigation will have on the perceptions of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety efforts as they move forward. He also condemned the plan as it stands and has played out thus far. 

“I’m of the belief that this entire process has been contaminated from its onset. And if there’s going to be a remaking of law enforcement, I believe that process should start again, from scratch,” said Winn.

Winn’s view seems counter to the majority of sitting members on Common Council, such as Aldperson Robert Cantelmo, who wants to see aspects of the plan explored and implemented, while simultaneously allowing for the investigations Brock requested to go forward.

Since the request for an investigation was made public on April 28 by Brock, meaningful discussions on the content of this report, and steps toward realizing the Reimagining Public Safety plan have slowed down in the City of Ithaca. Common Council, due to a packed agenda on June 1, did not discuss a proposed referendum to create a civilian Commissioner of Community Safety Position to lead a new Department of Community Safety.

Myrick previously said he would be glad to cooperate with any ethics investigation into the Reimagining Public Safety process, but labeled the call for an ethics investigation as a distraction being spurred by Brock, who he called an opponent of the proposal to restructure the Ithaca Police Department (IPD). He said that it would be a disservice if the allegations served to stop or alter the progress on police reform locally. 

Brock, in response to a request for written comment on the idea that the investigations she requested were motivated to undermine Black leadership, wrote that, “I simply refuse to believe that Black leaders in our community would ever support or endorse police reform processes that violate state and local ethics laws.”

Brock noted that the core goals of police reform systemic change, transparency, and accountability, and to diligently root out and eliminate racism and bias,” comparing these aspirations to the allegations she has worked to substantiate of third-party influence over the Reimagining Public Safety process.

“I feel it was a tremendous disservice to all those who participated that their work was embedded in a final report which, because of the influence and financing provided by Center for Policing Equity, cannot be reasonably viewed or accepted as qualified or unbiased,” wrote Brock.

Alderpersons Rob Gearhart, George McGonigal, Robert Cantelmo, Jeffrey Barken, and Acting Mayor Laura Lewis have all previously stated their support for the investigation into the RPS process.

Brock’s comment in full can be read here

The Investigations requested

The points which Brock requested to be requested are an alleged misappropriation of municipal funds by former Mayor Myrick in promising $10,000 in compensation to Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, the co-leaders of a working group tasked with providing recommendations on how to develop and implement the new Department of Community Safety, as well as other major reforms of the RPS plan passed by the City and Tompkins County in March 2021. 

Myrick previously responded to the allegation that this was a misappropriation of municipal funds by saying that, “as he understood it decisions involving less than $30,000 could be made administratively.”In other words, did not have to be approved by council

These promised payments were never made to Yearwood or Rosario, though the two co-leads of the working group did receive $10,000 each of $25,000 from the Dorothy Cotton Institute to compensate them for their time in the working group. This money originated with the Park Foundation, then moved through the Dorothy Cotton Institute before coming into the hands of Rosario and Yearwood. 

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick discusses Cornell’s role in the community. (09/01/2017) Credit: Kelsey O'Connor / The Ithaca Voice

The Park Foundation granted an additional $10,000 for a total of $35,000 to be put towards compensating all working group members in addition to Rosario and Yearwood that were not City employees, officials, or members of Common Council. Acting Mayor Laura Lewis told Brock in an April email that the City did not contract to pay the working group members.

The 15-member group overseen by Rosario and Yearwood was composed of officers from the Ithaca Police Department, members of the City of Ithaca Common Council, college students, business owners, city employees, community members and activists with an emphasis on leveraging people of color’s perspective and lived experience as the city sought to reform the police department.

The third-party payments to volunteers in the working group, in a reading of the City of Ithaca’s Ethics policies, is considered a violation.

The funds distributed to Rosario, Yearwood, and other members of the working group never went before Common Council, and was unknown to the body at-large until after the working group had finished and submitted its recommendations for a Department of Community safety to Common Council for review in early March 2022. 

Brock has requested an investigation into whether Myrick solicited these funds, or if he designated someone to, and how these funds may have influenced the “perspectives and performance” of the working group members.

In addition, Brock is seeking for Myrick to be investigated for a potential or perceived conflict of interest for being Mayor of Ithaca while also an employee of People for the American Way (PFAW), a national non-profit of which the former Mayor was hired to be the Director of Youth Leadership Programs in 2017. Myrick left his position as Mayor in Feb. 2022 to take the role of Executive Director at PFAW

PFAW, notably, started to employ organizers to push for local support around Reimagining Public Safety in February 2022.

Brock has also asked for an investigation into the services provided by the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) and their consultant group, Matrix Consulting, to be weighed for perceived or potential conflicts of interest in the services they donated. 

CPE has been involved with Ithaca’s RPS plan since it formed, though its presence or services were by-and-large not publicly scrutinized until Brock wrote an op-ed in April 2022 prefiguring her request for an investigation

The non-profit research center is based at Yale University and is dedicated to addressing and improving social and racial disparities within policing. The working group relied heavily on donated work and expertise from the CPE, according to Brock.

CPE published a statement pushing back against Brock’s requests for an investigation into Myrick’s conduct, and potential breach of ethics in the RPS process as “unfounded.” The organization went against Brock’s calls for an investigation wholesale, defending the payments made to working group members through third-party funds, and characterized the call for investigation as a baseless effort to undermine “Black leaders and Black-led organizations.”

Ultimately, Brock has asked for the Ethics Advisory Board to issue an opinion on whether the report completed by the working group can be deemed “impartial, unbiased, and appropriate for recommending legislative changes in accordance with County and City Ethics Code.”

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn