ITHACA, N.Y.—There have been uncomfortable moments in Ithaca politics from time to time, as there are in virtually any government. Those moments have seemed to come more frequently in the past 10 or so months as Common Council and Acting Mayor Laura Lewis adjust to their new leader and role, respectively, and two ethics investigations take place.
Those moments look like a stroll in Stewart Park compared to what has played out in the chambers on the third floor of City Hall during the last seven days, even as the largest budget in Ithaca history was passed Wednesday night. Watch the brief first part of the meeting here, and the brief second portion here, though they took place hours apart.
Last week’s en masse protest by unionized city employees was followed up Wednesday by a scorching rant from City Attorney Ari Lavine, probably the main target of the protest, calling the meeting a “mob attack” and “obscene spectacle” while blasting Common Council members who praised the city employees for coming forward. In his rather abnormal and arguably beyond-the-pale comments, Lavine did not name names and praised some of the employees who “spoke respectfully,” but it was a loud and lengthy push against accusations that Lavine oversteps his bounds and has been too cut-throat during negotiations with a variety of the city’s unions—amid broader complaints about the city’s compensation, treatment of workers and employee morale, voiced by dozens of city employees last week.
Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, fresh off winning another year in office and the removal of the “acting” tag come January, delivered comments to start the meeting that doubled down on her press release from last week, which defended Lavine and scolded certain commenters, employees and union leaders—but ruffled feathers throughout Common Council, who weren’t told beforehand of its release.
“I cannot let the moment pass without saying how dismayed I was, and still am, by the tone and tenor of comments directed at our senior staff last Wednesday,” Lewis said. “I ask my colleagues to consider the power of our words, our actions and our inactions.”
Lewis said Council members, in particular, should have been more cautious in their comments commending the employees. She said that she appreciates some of the employees who came to speak at the event, but also rebuked some for their more critical comments.
“I was appalled to hear employee morale issues, which are admittedly in need of being addressed, twisted last Wednesday into offensive and unfounded personal attacks on our city’s negotiating team, in particular City Attorney Ari Lavine,” Lewis said.
Lewis then turned it over to Lavine, who launched into a fiery 14 minute lambasting that took aim at a surprising breadth of targets. He began with an anecdote claiming a woman, who he had never met, had called his office crying on Friday after watching the “mob on the attack” at last week’s meeting.
“Mobs operate on real grievances and limited facts, as this one did,” Lavine said. “And they find someone to blame, right or wrong. […] I want to thank those city employees who spoke respectfully and tactfully on the merits last week. As well you should. […] As to those speakers who turned to rumor-fueled character assassination last week, I am glad that we live in a country where last week’s obscene spectacle is legal. But there’s nothing to be commended about how some of the employees and union leaders conducted themselves, including some of our supervisory employees.”
Lavine then turned the blowtorch on Common Council, condemning them for their support of the employees, which he clearly felt had thrown him under the bus for a city-directed strategy that he has been tasked to administer.
“I have been in the heart of Ithaca’s governance for a decade, my office literally with a backdoor that connects directly into the mayor’s office, and I am here to tell you that Ithaca has long been, and I believe still is, better than that,” Lavine said, his voice thundering before a silent council. “And yet a critical mass of this Common Council commended the most outrageous and threatening of the speakers for so-called ‘bravery’ last week. They did so without gathering any facts from staff, to my knowledge. never asked us anything, never requested any executive session in recent months, and wandered into their comments despite my suggestion to you of an executive session last week.”
Lavine’s comments were blistering throughout, with most of his ire aimed at Common Council. Council was not given an opportunity to respond to the comments. He did say that he personally doesn’t consider the city’s employees and their union leaders a “mob,” though he muddled that sentiment at points.
“Labor contracts and taxes are two sides of the same coin. I hope the irony was not lost on the public last week that Council baselessly condemned the city’s labor contract negotiation team, and minutes later wrung Council’s hands over a near–10% ent increase in the tax levy. Are you ready to pursue a 20% increase instead?” Lavine said, nearly yelling. “Tonight I call upon every member of this council to unequivocally condemn last Wednesday’s ‘mob on the attack,’ while of course thanking those city employees that spoke respectfully and tactfully on the merits.”
Council had not made such a condemnation by the end of the meeting, though it remains to be seen if something will be released doing so.
Lavine then started in on detailing certain union negotiations directives and outcomes that he had experienced during his time with the city. He railed against having been made the face of the city’s labor negotiations unit last week, noting that he is part of a five-member negotiating team that handles those talks, led by the mayor. He also remarked that if council is going to lament the situation for employees, it should share part of the blame for not moving forward with higher taxes to generate more income for the city, which would then be redirected to employees. He further noted the $200 milion in liabilities that the city has in post-career obligations to employees, which he said had resulted in a lower bond rating that impacts the interest the city pays to borrow money.
He also placed some blame on the unions that represent employees, arguing that Department of Public Works employees had voted down a 13% raise, according to him. Workers from DPW, which is down dozens of positions currently, were some of the loudest voices at last week’s meeting.
“We are genuinely frustrated that raises have not reached employees faster, particularly our DPW employees, who are among those most in need of a raise, who then voted down the 13% raise that we had agreed to with their leadership at the table. It takes two to tango,” he said. “Odd though it may sound, unions absolutely can prevent sizable raises by insisting on unrealistically large ones.”
Having touched upon the city’s health insurance plan, Lavine saved his final salvos for the union representing the Ithaca Fire Department workers. He more or less directly accused that union of orchestrating much of the backlash that was seen last week.
“After a year of negotiating session, the city and two rounds of mediation, the city was pending a final mediation session with the fire union contract three business days after last week’s council meeting,” Lavine said. “It is no coincidence that last week’s spectacle came when it did, despite that the city has been marketing packages along much the same lines for years. […] IFD has minimal vacancies. This is not a bargaining unit that has been treated in bad faith.”
He closed by saying that council’s response to the comments last week had “severely imperiled” the city’s ability to bargain with its unions. Lewis then thanked Lavine for his words, the only public reaction to the speech.
After Lavine’s speech, the council promptly went into a scheduled but abrupt executive session, one that lasted over four hours, until about 10:45 p.m. Upon returning, council members, looking tired and shellshocked but with Lavine still seated at the raised table behind the legislators, promptly passed the budget through a series of votes in one of the strangest scenes to unfold in City Hall in recent memory.
There’s no doubt that the topics covered in the brief post-executive session are important. The budget for the city and the Ithaca wastewater treatment facility, the city’s tax rate and the 2023 Sidewalk Improvement District were all approved, though with minimal discussion. But the topics that were not addressed included: Lavine’s comments shaming Common Council hours earlier, the vitriol directed at the budget and Lavine by city employees a week earlier, whether or not council had any response to Lavine, and how the situation had been resolved — if it even had been.
There were some substantive talks about the budget after the return, but nothing changed. Alderperson George McGonigal suggested cutting a position for a part-time homeless services coordinator in the budget, positing that Tompkins County already had created a full-time position doing the same duties in its budget.
Alderperson Phoebe Brown pushed back on the suggestion, saying the position could be used to help people who are classified as “couchsurfers” instead of known as homeless. Alderperson Ducson Nguyen also said that he didn’t believe cutting the $55K (including benefits) was beneficial enough to the budget to justify the reduction in homeless services resources it would represent. The motion did not pass.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock suggested transferring $300,000 from federal ARPA funds received by the city to a contingency fund and used as a one-time bonus to compensate workers who worked during COVID-19, one of the allowed uses of ARPA funding. That failed 6 to 4.
“I’m very happy with a lot of things in this budget,” said Aldeperson Patrick Mehler, puncturing the tension a bit though he was the only person to talk at much length during the final 23 minute portion of the meeting. “I do want to acknowledge how much work council put in, how much work senior staff put in, especially [City Controller Steve Thayer] and everybody who has made this entire process work.”
Brock ended up the only opposing vote to the budget. The meeting finally concluded with a request from Brown that a special council meeting be convened to discuss the comments of recently resigned Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres, who has expressed repeatedly that he felt undermined and interfered with during his time with the city, particularly in the last several months. Other than Brown’s statement, Aguirre-Torres was not mentioned during the meeting; Lewis said the topic would be one that council “would follow up on.”