ITHACA, N.Y. — In light of complaints from the city’s public sector unions that the city’s contract negotiation tactics are overly hardball, a resolution is being considered by Ithaca’s Common Council that would place a labor liaison from the elected body in the negotiating room.

The resolution passed the Ithaca’s City Administration Committee on Wednesday and is now set to be considered by Common Council at their first meeting in the new year. It would establish a liaison as an observer to negotiations, not a participant. The resolution was presented by Alderperson George McGonigal, who acknowledged Alderperson Robert Cantelmo for assisting with the writing.

The entirety of Wednesday’s City Administration committee Meeting can be watched here, and the agenda can be found here.

Establishing a labor liaison

The text of the resolution to establish a labor liaison reads that the goal of the position would be to “give Council a better and more complete understanding of the issues that are most important to the City’s union employees.”

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini said, “I think that this was a very clear and effective response to a need that popped up in our city staff. I think that this shows that we’re taking their concerns seriously.”

The genesis for establishing a labor liaison began in early November, when a flood of city employees appeared before a meeting of Common Council to voice their dissatisfaction with what they call a decade of stifling contract negotiations. City workers and union leaders argue that the negotiations have resulted in an uncompetitive combination of pay and benefits packages which, in turn, has made recruitment challenging across various city departments, particularly the Department of Public Works.

Common Council was accused of having become out of touch with the issues that the city’s employees have been facing, and City Attorney Ari Lavine — who has been head of the City’s contract negotiation team — was purported by several city workers and union leaders to be an obstacle to the city and its labor unions reaching mutually beneficial agreements. 

Lavine, who rebuked the demonstration in part as an act of character assassination, has maintained that the city’s goals in negotiations are set by the Mayor’s office, and that he is carrying out those objectives. But, upon his own recommendation, Lavine has been removed from the negotiating table, and will be replaced by outside counsel as the city aims to finalize contracts with three of its bargaining units in 2023.  

Under the resolution to be considered by Common Council, the labor liaison assignment will be made annually. The Alderperson that will serve in the role will be recommended by Ithaca’s Mayor, and the assignment will hinge on a vote by Common Council.

Chief of Staff Faith Vavra says goodbye

Faith Vavra, the City of Ithaca’s outgoing Chief of Staff, took to the mic on Wednesday to say her goodbyes to City Hall. 

“Thank you doesn’t seem strong enough for my appreciation for this community and the people that serve it,” said Vavra.

In September 2021, Vavra stepped into her role as Chief of Staff under former Mayor Svante Myrick, and announced her departure from City Hall little more than a year later in October 2022.

At the time, a special election was coming up for Ithaca Mayor in November, and Vavra said she felt that Ithaca’s incoming Mayor “must have the freedom to choose their own Chief of Staff.” For Mayor Laura Lewis, that choice would prove to be former Common Council member Deb Mohlenhoff.

A native of Binghamton, Vavra has worked as Director of Special Programs for the Broome County Executive Office, and as a Deputy District Director in New York’s 22nd Congressional District, which is now redrawn, but was represented by Democrat Anthony Brindisi. While her time in the City of Ithaca was brief, Vavra said, “I learned more things in the last year than I have in my 30 years in government.”

A work-life balance is an elusive premise at best in government work, and Vavra spoke earnestly about the familial bond that long hours have created with the various staffs she’s worked with in the past, and most recently at the City of Ithaca. 

“I always try to embrace every job I’ve ever had — this one was really easy. I do treat you all like my family,” said Vavra, acknowledging that the work of public servants often comes at the expense of their own families at home.

“And every single employee, please don’t forget that there is more than what you see in the news and in the media,” said Vavra. “We are a family here in the city, and we do care about each other even though we have our differences.”

Other news and notes

  • Alderperson Cantelmo brought a draft of a local law forward for discussion at Wednesday’s committee meeting that would alter the way the City of Ithaca fills vacancies left by elected officials. Currently, if a seat on Common Council is made vacant, the seat will be filled by a selection committee, and at the next annual election, a special election will be held to elect a candidate to fill the remainder of the term. The same process is true if the Mayor’s office is made vacant, except if the outgoing mayor appoints an Acting Mayor, instead of a selection committee. The discussed local law would remove the selection and appointment process, and instead utilize a special election alone to fill vacancies. Cantelmo argued that the proposed process would be more democratic than the current one used. 
  • Alderperson Ducson Nguyen brought forward an ordinance for discussion that would legalize jaywalking in the City of Ithaca. While the law against jaywalking is largely unenforced in the City of Ithaca, Nguyen said that repealing the code would signal that Ithaca’s streets are not “solely owned by motor vehicles, and that pedestrians and cyclists use them as well.” He emphasized that he thought it was time for the city of Ithaca to repeal this law now that city wide speed limits have been lowered from 30 to 25 miles per hour.
  • The City Administration Committee voted to approve a resolution to establish an advisory Board for the Community Justice Center, the joint city-county office that is in charge of coordinating the implementation of the Reimagining Public Safety plans of both the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County. The Advisory Board will be composed of 15 individuals, one of which will be the CJC’s Project Director, a position occupied by Monalita Smiley. The recommendation provided by the CJC for the Common Council’s consideration listed the other appointees to the board in the following order:

Seven appointees will come from the following impacted stakeholder agencies:

  • Ithaca Police Department Chief or their designee
  • Sheriff’s Office (Elected Sheriff or their designee)
  • District Attorney or their designee
  • Assigned Counsel
  • Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program Representative
  • Mental Health Representative
  • Harm Reduction Agency (Reach Medical

Seven appointees will also come from impacted community populations, which will be appointed by the advisory board based on the following criteria:

  • Persons with lived experiences
  • To promote community engagement to foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy in the process and
  • Ability to address racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color

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