ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca is pushing forward with an internal investigation into concerns of third-party financial influence into the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) process while continuing to further the reforms that have been explored and recommended to Common Council by the RPS Working Group.

Ithaca’s City Administration Committee unanimously approved its Attorney’s Office to hire an outside counsel to conduct the internal investigation on Wednesday—separate from the county’s ethics investigation. A final approval of the outside counsel will be considered by Common Council in July. The resolution would put forward $16,000 to fund the investigation, and limit the total city spending on outside legal counsel to $50,000. 

Alongside the committee’s approval of hiring legal counsel also came the body’s unanimous adoption of the RPS Working Group’s report and a resolution to establish civilian oversight over the Department of Community Safety. The latter is one of the leading recommendations in the working group report. Both resolutions will be considered by Common Council at their July meeting as well. 

Laura Lewis addresses a small crowd in Ithaca’s Press Bay Alley as she officially announces her campaign to fill a one year term as Mayor of the City of Ithaca. (03/10/2022) Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

In an interview, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis told The Ithaca Voice that the legal counsel that was identified to conduct the investigation is an individual that is from outside the Ithaca-area in addition to being unattached to local government. She said that the individual’s name will likely not be released until they produce a final written report which will be presented to Common Council and made publicly available.

Lewis refrained from illustrating the scope of the investigation that the city is seeking from an impartial legal consultant due to the “developing” nature of the situation.

The resolution approved on Wednesday provides the extent of the investigation that has been publicly confirmed. It reads that “Common Council has raised ethical concerns regarding potential outside financial influence in the Reimagining Public Safety Process” and, “Council has in particular focused those concerns on apparent outside payments to non-staff volunteer or consultant participants in the process.”

Third-party payments

The co-leaders of the RPS Working Group, Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, each received $10,000 in compensation for what turned out to be an 8 month process leading a 15 member group to develop the report and recommendations. Common Council did not become aware of these payments until after the working group had presented its report in March 2022. 

The working group included officers from the Ithaca Police Department (IPD), members of Ithaca’s Common Council, college students, business owners, city employees, community members and activists with an emphasis on prioritizing a place for community members of color in the group. Funding was also made available to members of the working group who were not city employees or elected officials. 

The money given to Rosario, Yearwood, and other members of the working group originated from the Park Foundation and the Dorothy Cotton Institute. How these funds were solicited, and who solicited these funds is likely a question that the outside legal counsel will be attempting to answer—though former Mayor Svante Myrick has said the Park Foundation approached the city, and Park officials have vaguely confirmed. 

In the wake of these third-party payments to volunteer working group members coming to light, the City of Ithaca has also begun the process of reviewing their Gifting and Solicitation Policy. 

The Center for Policing Equity, Ithaca, and Tompkins County part ways

In another turn of events, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County are bringing their working relationship with the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) to an end. Tompkins County Legislature Chair Shawna Black made the announcement at the Legislature’s Tuesday meeting. 

CPE is a national nonprofit based out of Yale University that played a strong role in developing Ithaca and Tompkins County’s initial Reimagining Public Safety plan, and in the report that the working group issued to the City of Ithaca in March 2022. 

Lewis said that the end of the working relationship doesn’t have to do with the investigation, but that the collaboration between CPE, the city, and the county has reached its natural end with the publication of the RPS Working Group’s report. She also emphasized that the establishment of the Community Justice Center — a joint city-county department tasked with implementing the RPS plan passed in March 2021 — has given the local community the capacity to see its commitments through.

“It’s really motivated by the fact that we, the city and county, now have capacity to continue to reimagine public safety work within our community,” said Lewis. “So it’s more a function of that relationship coming to a logical conclusion.”

Lewis committed to putting an investigation into motion in April after Alderperson Cynthia Brock made public her concerns of outside influence in the RPS process as well as her request of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board to investigate a myriad of points related to the RPS process, Myrick, and CPE.

Ithaca’s Common Council, by and large, has not publicly discussed much in the way of potential influence CPE may have had on the working group. Matrix Consulting Group, CPE’s consulting group, provided the analytics on IPD which served as a main plank for the working group’s suggestions to Common Council on how to reform the department.

IPD Acting Chief John Joly has voiced concerns to city officials about certain aspects of Matrix Consulting Group’s analysis that he believes are inaccurate, although these points have not been publicly weighed against Matrix’s Report on Patrol Staffing and Deployment.

By adopting the report prepared by the working group—a decision which will be before the Common Council at it’s July meeting— the City of Ithaca would cement its commitment to take action on a portion of the recommendations made in the document, which include civilian oversight of the City’s public safety responses; creating unarmed first responders; requiring community-centered training for armed and unarmed officers; improving technology for community safety efforts; improving data collection and public reporting of data; and establishing an ad hoc group to investigate call delineation for the new department. 

Though there is controversy in the air regarding the working group’s report, the overall sentiment of Ithaca’s Common Council has been to not lose sight of the original goals of the Reimagining Public Safety plan which are, among others, to increase social and racial justice in law enforcement and public safety through increasing transparency and accountability in community policing, as well as diversify call response types with armed or unarmed personnel.

At Wednesday’s committee meeting, Alderperson Jorge Defendini thanked everyone who participated in the working group and said with the adoption of the working group’s report, “We are living our ideals.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn