ITHACA, N.Y.—With the start of the new year, Ithaca’s Common Council has taken an affirmative step to try building a more positive connection between the city and its workers. But not without debate. 

On Wednesday, Council approved a resolution proposed by Alderperson George McGonigal to create a labor liaison position, which would make one or two of Ithaca’s council members party to the closed-door bargaining sessions that the city and its union’s labor contracts are negotiated under, but not a participant.

The position is meant to give Common Council more routine and more first-hand knowledge of the positions and needs of its workers and the city, and why both parties are negotiating the way they are. 

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini said, “I think having this voted on in the beginning of the 2023 year after we heard from our city employees late last year shows a speedy reaction and a thoughtful one, and that we’re taking relations between the city and our employees very seriously.”

The impetus for creating the liaison came after the city’s public sector workers filled out the public comment section of Common Council meeting on Nov. 2, complaining of low morale, burnout, and challenges recruiting and retaining staff. The fallout from the meeting continued for weeks, with the labor liaison suggestion rising as one proposed solution. 

Alderperson George McGonigal (left) speaking at a meeting of Common Council. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The cause of this tension, many workers alleged, is over a decade of hardball negotiation tactics on the part of the city with its unions, which has left city departments — like the Department of Public Works (DPW), notably — competing for workers in a tight labor market while only being able to offer sub par wages.

Workers, in essence, said that Common Council had become out of touch with the departments and people running the city, and that the greater risk of the ailing city staff was a potential failure of municipal services. The new President of Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association, George Apgar, appeared before Common Council on Wednesday to voice his support for the labor liaison position. 

“So we’re all interdependent on each other,” Apgar said, additionally referencing the Department of Public Works’ staffing situation. “And some departments have gotten to the point that they’re on the cusp — if one more person leaves, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

Apgar, who is Assistant Fire Chief at the Ithaca Fire Department, said that his duties include managing IFD’s fire truck fleet. “If our main mechanic leaves, it could cause a shortage for a station,” said Apgar. 

Looking at the issues surrounding the national workforce and the city’s, Apgar said he felt that effective communication had to be high on the list of reasons why people are leaving jobs, and why so many workplaces are struggling to correct their internal issues. The labor liaison, he said, would help bridge that gap between council and its workforce.

In discussion on Wednesday, the major issue that emerged would be the time commitment, and how the labor liaison would be appointed. 

McGonigal’s original draft outlined a process of the Mayor nominating a liaison from council, which would require a vote to be approved. The process would have been precedent setting. Ithaca’s Mayor has so far reserved the power to appoint liaison without a vote from Ithaca’s Alderpersons. 

“I don’t think there’s any of these liaison appointments that are subject to approval by the Common Council. […] I think this is a slippery slope,” Alderperson Rob Gearhart said. 

Ultimately, the requirement was removed from the resolution through an amendment, and the labor liaison position was expanded from one to one or two Alderpersons after it became clear that it would be a large time commitment required for any single person to sit in on all contract negotiations sessions. 

Discussion on Wednesday did not provide an explanation for why the labor liaison had originally been proposed with Common Council’s approval, but there does seem to be a difference of views on Common Council around how the city should handle the tension between it and its workers. 

Some city workers had named City Attorney Ari Lavine as the main cause for the friction in contract negotiations, labeling him as disinterested in finding an agreement that would be mutually beneficial for the city and its workers. The statements dragged Lavine into the spotlight. Since he began in his role as City Attorney for the City of Ithaca and 2012, Lavine has remained a largely uncriticized figure in city government.

Ithaca City Attorney Ari Lavine working during a Common Council meeting. Credit: Casey MArtin / The Ithaca Voice.

Lavine’s response to the statements from city workers, and to the Common Council not leaping to his defense would draw considerable consternation. After Mayor Lewis briefly commented on the demonstration from city workers on Nov. 2, saying that she felt that Common Council members had not considered the power of their words well enough, she turned the mic over to Lavine who would proceed to castigate Common Council and certain city workers in a more than 10 minute speech.

Recounting the events of Nov. 2, he called the city workers demonstration a “mob attack” and an act of “character assassination.” Lavine has said that the contract negotiation goals he pursues are delegated to him by the Mayor, and so criticisms of those positions and tactics are misaimed at him. He also criticized Common Council, saying that “a critical mass of this Common Council commended the most outrageous and threatening of the speakers for so-called ‘bravery’…”

Six members of Common Council would respond to the speech from Lavine in a signed letter dated Nov. 17, in which they called his comments “hyperbolic and disrespectful,” but acknowledged that he has been executing his duties as delegated to him, and that when a speaker on Nov. 2 called for him to step down as City Attorney, that council or the Mayor should have stepped in and said something. 

Yet, the letter further stated that Mayor Lewis’ “implicit approval of [Lavine’s] actions supports the concerns raised by City employees on Nov. 2.”

Lavine has since stepped down from the negotiating team, and will be replaced by an outside attorney per his own recommendation. 

Other News & Notes

  • Several members of the public appeared before Common Council during the public comment section to voice their frustration over the approval of a car wash in the Southside neighborhood. The car wash, they cited, would not have been a in adherence with changes to the zoning laws proposed in the Greater Southside Neighborhood Plan. As a result, they argued that the City of Ithaca’s Planning Board approving the project was an oversight.
  • Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis announced that she will not be seeking reelection as Ithaca Mayor in 2023. The announcement came in the midst of a lengthy State of the City of Ithaca address. 
  • Common Council approved an issuance of over $20 million in bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements such as for the various bridges planning projects, such as the planning and design costs for improvements to the Stewart Avenue Bridge that crosses Fall Creek, design and planning costs for the expansion of the Black Diamond Trail, and replacing for the replacement of sewer infrastructure along Meadow Street. 
  • Tiffany Kumar was sworn in to represent Ithaca’s 4th Ward on Wednesday. She beat Alderperson Patrick Mehler in the Democratic primary for a special election to represent the ward for a single year term in 2022.
  • Alderperson Ducson Nguyen was appointed by Mayor Laura Lewis as Acting Mayor. He will be tasked with filling her Mayoral duties in the event that she is unable to. Alderperson Rob Gearhart was appointed as alternate acting Mayor.

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