ITHACA, N.Y.—During her lengthy time as Acting Mayor, Laura Lewis was also representing Ithaca’s Fifth Ward on Common Council. And when Lewis won the mayoral election in November, officially shedding the “acting” label, it created the need to fill a looming vacancy on Ithaca’s Common Council that might be filled on Wednesday.

Common Council’s meeting agenda for Feb. 1 does not list a name, but The Ithaca Voice has confirmed with multiple sources familiar with the matter that the recommendation from the selection committee is Kris Haines-Sharp, a former Assistant Principal at New Roots Charter School and one of eight applicants who threw their names in to fill the Fifth Ward seat. Haines-Sharp told The Voice that she couldn’t speak to whether she was chosen by the selection committee until after Wednesday’s meeting. 

Lewis spent close to a year in the acting role from when she assumed the position in February 2022 at former Mayor Svante Myrick’s appointment until the end of 2022, all the while still managing her duties as a member of Common Council. This is in accordance with what Common Council’s Rules of Procedure outlines should happen when a mayor leaves office in the City of Ithaca part way through a term they’ve been elected to.

But Lewis’ long tenure as simultaneously an Acting Mayor and member of Common Council were “unusual circumstances,” Alderperson Robert Cantelmo said, which prompted him to begin the process of trying to reform the way a vacancy in the mayor’s office is filled, as well as vacancies on Common Council. 

Cantelmo — who is currently the only candidate to declare a bid for Ithaca mayor in the upcoming election — aims to propose the “Elected Office Vacancy Reform Act” at a City Administration Committee this month, which would make special elections the standard way vacancies in Ithaca’s elected offices are handled from the get-go. In most cases, the reform act proposes that a special election should be held 85 days after a vacancy is created in any of Ithaca’s elected offices. 

“Why not design a system that is in most keeping with our democratic process?” Cantelmo said.

“[Tompkins] County has a really successful process of holding special elections for their vacancies,” Cantelmo said. “I think in the spirit of civic engagement, it makes the most sense for us to move towards a system where vacancies are filled through special elections.” 

Currently, the procedure of filling an empty seat on Common Council is more akin to a hiring process than an election or the appointment process in the case of the mayor’s office. When there’s a vacancy on Common Council, residents of the ward interested in filling the seat are asked to submit an application to the City Clerk’s office for the seat, and a three-person selection committee interviews all the applicants.

The committee is comprised of the mayor, the remaining alderperson from the ward where the vacancy is, and an alderperson of the mayor’s choosing. The committee settles on a recommendation for council, which has the final vote on whether or not to approve the recommendation. 

But caution is being put forward by Stephen Dewitt, the Tompkins County Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner, as well as the Democratic Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Livesay.

Dewitt and Livesay also said that on the face of it, special elections may seem like a more democratic process than the selection committee has chosen, but raised the issue of the number of people that actually end up voting.

Special elections, Dewitt said, “In my opinion, [are] actually not as transparent as the current process,” Dewitt said. 

Dewitt and Livesay explained that they felt that by using a selection committee at first, then having an election scheduled for June and November if needed, improves voter turnout and leads to a more civic participation in the election of candidates. 

“The turn out on these kinds of [special] elections doesn’t tend to be good,” said Dewitt.

In a follow-up statement to The Voice, Cantelmo wrote that his support of the reform act is unaffected by this point. “Special elections may have a lower voter turnout than regularly scheduled elections, but it still puts the decision in the hands of the voters,” he said. “I feel empowering the community to have an active role in filling a vacancy is ultimately more democratic than the existing appointment process.”

City of Ithaca Alderperson Robert Cantelmo speaking during a meeting of Common Council. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

In the case of the vacancy created by the departure of former Alderperson Steven Smith in August 2021, there was two years and five months left remaining in his four-year term. In October 2021, Patrick Mehler was chosen by the selection committee and approved by Common Council to fill Smith’s seat until the end of 2022, and a normal primary election and general election were both held that year in which Alderperson Tiffany Kumar was voted in to finish the final year of the four-year term. 

While Cantelmo said that he hopes to see special elections used as the standard procedure used to fill unexpected vacancies in elected office going forward, Cantelmo also said that “At the very least we want to make sure […] that there’s consistency in the process, just so that people know what to expect, right?”

The process that has led to Haines-Sharp’s recommendation differs from the process that led to the last vacancy on Common Council being filled when Smith left office in August 2021. 

Cantelmo, who was on the selection committee to fill that vacancy in 2021 on Common Council, said that he wanted to see the current vacancy filled quickly. “It’s really important that the Fifth Ward, and any ward, has its full council representation, and we get somebody in there as soon as possible.” 

But after this vacancy is filled, he said that “We really need to examine how we deal with unexpected vacancies systematically.”

The selection committee for filling Smith’s seat met with and interviewed all applicants, only two, through virtual meetings that were broadcast live on YouTube. The committee’s discussion of the merits of the two candidates and its vote to recommend one of them was also broadcast live on YouTube. 

But in the case of filling the Fifth Ward vacancy, interviews with the applicants were done on Jan. 5 and 6, 2023, then uploaded in two separate videos to the City of Ithaca’s YouTube page on Jan. 10. When those videos were uploaded, the public was alerted through an announcement from the City of Ithaca. No materials or recordings of the selection committee’s further deliberations on the merits of one candidate over another were made public, and the impending vote from Common Council was announced through the routine release of the council’s meeting agenda for its regular Wednesday meeting. 

The differences in process behind filling the vacancy made by Smith on Common Council in 2021 and Lewis in 2023 are permitted under the council’s rules of procedure, which do not instruct the selection committee to review prospective candidates publicly. 

If Cantelmo’s reform act passes a committee vote in February, it would appear before Common Council in March, and it seems likely that it will be voted up by the City Administration Committee. Its members, including Alderpersons George McGonigal, Ducson Nguyen, Jeffrey Barken and Jorge DeFendini in addition to Cantelmo who chairs the CAC, responded positively to the idea of special elections. 

In a request for further comment from all members of Common Council on the reform act, DeFendini said he strongly supports the act. “I think this act will bring us closer to our democratic ideals and returns more power in choosing one’s representative to the people.”

Alderperson Nguyen responded, “I support the change and to the greatest extent possible (thus coordinating with the BOE to be as practical as their resources allow).” He said he prefers “having voters decide their representatives rather than council. 

Lewis characterized the current process of filling vacancies on council as a “well-established process developed by previous councils to fill vacancies [which] takes into consideration input from council as well as addressing transparency for the public.”

She added that if Cantelmo’s reform is adopted, the Tompkins County Board of Elections would need to be involved as the city does not oversee its own elections.

One issue that was raised in the CAC meeting on Dec. 21 is the added cost of special elections. The city will have to pay the Tompkins County BoE to run special elections, and it seems that will be more expensive for Ithaca than the process it currently uses. During the meeting, Cantelmo opined that the reform act might be cost-neutral, an idea that both Dewitt and Livesay pushed back on.

Dewitt and Livesay told The Voice that their rough estimate for what it would cost the city to run a special election to fill a council seat was around $10,000, and $13,000 to fill a mayoral seat. They added the cost would likely be higher, rattling off a myriad of expenses associated with running elections, including paying poll workers, moving voting machines, acquiring ballots and staffing the BoE office during voting. They also emphasized that special elections, with their unpredictable schedules, would potentially  add significant strain on the BoE’s staffing

Referencing the perilous journey taken by the fictional character Frodo Baggins and other hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy masterpiece, “The Lord of the Rings,” Livesay joked: “You don’t just walk into Mordor.”

In a follow-up statement to The Voice, Cantelmo wrote that an added cost onto the city budget “is a reasonable expenditure given the infrequency of the vacancies and the importance of democratically selecting our representatives.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn