ITHACA, N.Y.—Two key members of the City of Ithaca’s leadership are leaving their positions, the Ithaca Voice has confirmed. Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres and Chief of Staff Faith Vavra have both informed the city they are resigning.
Vavra had served as Chief of Staff for just over one year, while Aguirre-Torres, a particularly celebrated hire and the public face of many of Ithaca’s sustainability initiatives, was brought on in March 2021. Aguirre-Torres stepped down this week, according to a Twitter thread he wrote Friday morning, while Vavra will work for a few more weeks before officially leaving.
Acting Mayor Laura Lewis offered the following statement on behalf of the City of Ithaca regarding Aguirre-Torres’ departure.
“I want to thank Luis Aguirre-Torres for his extensive efforts on behalf of the City’s sustainability goal,” Lewis said. “I am grateful that he has spent the past year-and-a-half championing the Ithaca Green New Deal, and thank him for the progress that he has made for the City.”
The Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND) ambitiously made 2030 the target for achieving carbon neutrality community-wide while also prioritizing addressing social inequities. As he’s worked to substantiate the lofty goals Ithaca outlined in the 2019 resolution that initiated the IGND, Aguirre-Torres has brough local, national and international attention to the City of Ithaca.
The plan Aguirre-Torres orchestrated to electrify Ithaca’s building stock has situated the city as a global leader in the fight against climate change, demonstrating the potential for smaller governments to take action. Though a contract has been finalized between the City of Ithaca and BlocPower, the Brooklyn-based company that will be retrofitting and electrifying the city’s buildings, the project is a work in progress and still not yet a success story on it’s merits, but has begun to inspire other cities, like Menlo Park in California to pursue similar efforts.
In a Twitter thread announcing his coming departure from the City of Ithaca on Oct. 21, Aguirre-Torres wrote, “This week I stepped down as Director of Sustainability for the @CityofIthaca1. It was a privilege to lead the city’s decarbonization & climate justice strategies. I leave the city @ the forefront of the #ElectrifyEverything movement. I will continue supporting #ElectrifyIthaca.”
Aguirre-Torres also hinted at certain friction inside the city government over his work, continuing in the thread to state that dedication is needed from “BOTH the community and city leadership” to achieve Net Zero.
CEO of BlocPower, Donnel Baird said, “We are very proud of the Ithaca Green New Deal, which Luis Aguirre-Torres was a leader in organizing. We will miss Luis, but know he will continue to spread the gospel of Ithaca’s Green New Deal in any new role he takes on. We are super excited to work with Mayor Lewis, the City Council, and passionate stakeholders across Ithaca to implement the inspirational vision of Ithaca’s Green New Deal! Let’s Go!”
Lewis further wrote, “I am deeply committed to fulfilling the goals of the Ithaca Green New Deal and have great confidence in the City’s Planning staff to achieve those goals, particularly Director of Planning Lisa Nicholas and Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans. I am confident that our search for a new Director of Sustainability will recruit another excellent Director to maintain the City’s momentum in achieving our sustainability goals.”
As for Vavra, she told The Ithaca Voice she has been “honored” to serve as the Chief of Staff in the city after being selected by former Mayor Svante Myrick and officially appointed in September 2021.
“In support of the City’s organizational stability, I stayed on as part of the Acting Mayor’s interim administration, pending election of a Mayor,” Vavra wrote. “I believe that once elected, Ithaca’s Mayor must have the freedom to choose their own Chief of Staff. If elected next month, Mayor Lewis will be well-positioned to select a Chief of Staff best suited to achieving her goals for the City. I would like to thank Common Council, City staff, community partners, and City of Ithaca residents for their support and guidance. I wish the City every success.”
Lewis echoed Vavra’s statement, thanking Vavra for her work and acknowledging the potential need for whoever the next mayor is — Lewis is running against Republican Zach Winn and third-party candidate Katie Sims in a November election to finish the last year of Myrick’s term — to select their own chief of staff.
“I want to thank Chief of Staff Faith Vavra for her dedicated efforts on behalf of the City during the past year. She was recruited to the City by former Mayor Myrick, and I appreciated her willingness to join my administration when I became Acting Mayor. I also appreciate her recognition that permitting me to select my own Chief of Staff can benefit the City, if I am elected,” Lewis said. “Faith has been a tireless advocate for the City during her year with us and I wish her all the best in her future endeavor.”
Lewis also noted that the potential city manager position would factor into her next Chief of Staff selection. The city manager restructuring is on the ballot for a referendum next month.
“I intend to focus my search for a new Chief of Staff on candidates also suited to serving as City Manager beginning in 2024 should the referendum pass next month,” Lewis said.
The departures mark a continued loss of familiar faces around City Hall and among city leadership. Longtime City Clerk Julie Holcomb has announced that she is retiring from the city after 33 years; Fire Chief Tom Parsons announced his retirement over the summer after 10 years at the helm of the fire department. That’s all in addition to perhaps the most surprising of all, former Mayor Svante Myrick’s decision to step down from his post in February after 10 years.