Update, 5:45 p.m.—In the span of about 72 hours, Ithaca went from the brink of appointing a new police chief to starting all over again from square one.
According to a letter sent internally to Common Council members, Mayor-Elect Laura Lewis has chosen to withdraw the appointment of Acting Chief John Joly to permanently lead the Ithaca Police Department.
Lewis said that Joly’s experience as deputy chief and acting chief over the last year and a half would have “served the department and the city well going forward,” but after widespread opposition arose from Common Council members (detailed below) in the wake of the appointment’s surprise appearance on next week’s Common Council agenda, she chose to reverse the decision.
“After careful consideration, however, I believe it is necessary to change course now and reopen the search,” Lewis wrote. “I respect the fact that a number of my colleagues disagreed with my recommendation and so I will be removing this appointment from the December 7 Common Council agenda. This has been an extremely difficult decision. I will soon announce a plan for a reopened search for the next Chief of the Ithaca Police Department.”
The letter has not yet been released publicly and an announcement has not been made by the city. A request for comment or confirmation to Lewis was not immediately returned. The letter includes a statement from Joly as well.
“I am disappointed by the Common Council’s conclusion on my proposed appointment,” Joly wrote. “I’m confident I would have continued to serve the city and the department well as chief, but I also respect that this is a decision that the Common Council needs to support. I wish the IPD all the best and, like all of us, wish the mayor success in recruiting another excellent candidate to this crucial and difficult role.”
Original Story, 8:30 a.m.:
ITHACA, N.Y.—While the City of Ithaca has yet to officially announce the move, the appointment of current Acting Chief John Joly to permanently lead the Ithaca Police Department was subtly slipped into the end of the Common Council agenda for its monthly meeting Wednesday.
Mayor-elect Laura Lewis had been mulling three finalists for the job, Joly, former IPD lieutenant Scott Garin and Binghamton Police Department captain Chris Bracco, and has apparently settled on Joly. But Common Council has the final say on the matter, and Joly’s prospects of being approved by council at the meeting seem rather unlikely, with several council members willing to speak on the record about their rejection of the pick.
Their statements, from four members total, portray a very difficult path for Joly to be approved in what would be another harmful blow to the Lewis administration, which has been through near-constant turbulence over the last six weeks or so—including high-profile staff departures and internal turmoil spilling into public view over union negotiations.
Other members have signaled disappointment that the mayor made the decision “without consultation or input” from council before an announcement was public, other than what was gathered from those council members who were on the selection committee—Alderpersons George McGonigal, Phoebe Brown and Rob Gearhart.
Lewis declined to comment on the appointment, saying she wanted to wait until the process is complete after Common Council votes on the matter. Joly did not respond to a request for comment, though he told 14850.com over the weekend that he was “excited and relieved” to have the acting tag removed.
“I’m confident that this will help stabilize the department and allow us to focus on hiring, officer wellness, community engagement, and professional development,” Joly told 14850. Joly has been with the department for over 15 years and has been acting police chief since April 2021.
Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Thomas Condzella also declined to comment.
Multiple sources have told The Ithaca Voice that the selection committee, made up of eight people including three Common Council members, did not choose Joly. Their choice was Garin, another finalist, who was generally viewed as the leading favorite for the job. It is unclear why Lewis decided against following the committee’s recommendation.
In order for Joly to be approved, he would need six votes (Correction: a previous version of this story stated that he would need five votes). Lewis is still technically mayor-elect, not fully mayor, meaning she still has her spot on Common Council in accordance with the acting mayor position. She is, obviously, a guaranteed vote in favor, but the support seems to run quite low beyond Lewis.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock will be traveling for the meeting and is thus unable to participate in the vote. Yet she has voiced her concerns with the pick and confirmed that she would have voted against it if she were in attendance.
“I regret that I am traveling and unable to participate in this important vote. I have informed the Mayor-Elect, Acting Chief Joly, and my Council colleagues that I do not support this appointment,” Brock wrote in a statement to The Ithaca Voice. “We need a chief who brings with them a lifelong commitment to addressing and reversing systemic and implicit bias in policing. In my experience, John Joly is not that person.”
Brock was joined by Alderpersons Jeffrey Barken, Jorge Defendini and Ducson Nguyen, all of whom sent statements expressing their objection to the appointment in response to questions from The Ithaca Voice. Barken said Joly’s service to the city of Ithaca and his fellow officers has been admirable and should be commended, but that more significant change is necessary.
“Mayor Lewis’ decision to officially name Joly Chief of Police, however, is problematic,” Barken wrote. “With recruitment and officer retention at IPD gravely impaired, it is necessary to change leadership. We have a generational opportunity to chart a new course, reassert faith in the ideals of Reimagining Public Safety, to offer an honest assessment of our beleaguered force, and to begin to rebuild a vital service with new inspiration. It is regrettable that Mayor Lewis did not consult with more members of Council before making her decision. I don’t support the status quo that this appointment represents.”
DeFendini concurred, referencing two incidents in Joly’s past: a gaffe at his community forum at GIAC in October, when he seemed to indicate that lying to the government is part of Black culture (later in the forum, Joly apologized for the remark and clarified, saying he misspoke initially) and allegations from former Ithaca Police Department detective Christina Barksdale, fired in 2020 after an audit found years of underinvestigated cases including sex offenses that were assigned to Barksdale, that Joly contributed to a toxic work environment at the department. Barksdale filed a Division of Human Rights complaint about the treatment, which found in Joly’s favor, but later settled a lawsuit against the City of Ithaca and was able to retire in August. (Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Barksdale was terminated; according to the settlement, Barksdale was allowed to retire)
“As a longtime police department leader and former PBA president, Joly has had years to enact positive culture changes in the police department,” DeFendini said. “But what we’ve seen from him is continued reticence around the Reimagining Public Safety project, and a dedication to protecting the police’s power instead of providing true public safety. In addition, he’s expressed racist views, including during the public forums for this position, and been accused by his colleagues of creating a racist work environment.”
“Many of my constituents are in disbelief over this appointment,” Nguyen said. “I’m obligated to represent their values and priorities, which are not reflected in this selection.”