ITHACA, N.Y.—Over the course of its first two hours, Wednesday’s Common Council meeting would develop into an emotional cocktail. 

Eyes grew wet with tears and council chambers thrummed with applause when Alan Fe Nunn was granted Ithaca’s J. Diann Sams African American History Month Recognition Award for his life of leadership and invaluable contributions to the Ithaca community. Adding to the meeting’s potency, the city’s labor leaders converged to send a clear message that they’re going to keep pushing for the treatment and contracts they think the city’s unionized workers deserve. Their urging Common Council to move faster to address their concerns would become the driving force behind the meeting’s conversation. 

Additionally, looming over the Wednesday proceedings was the senseless, brutal killing of Tyre Nichols, 29, at the hands of Memphis City police. 

An hour before council’s meeting, labor leaders representing the city’s workers gathered outside Ithaca City Hall. They had planned to restage the mass demonstration workers had made in November, which cemented the discontent of city employees as a new central issue in Ithaca’s politics. 

The city’s unions have now formed the Ithaca Workers Coalition to elevate its message, with a website to boot. On Wednesday, a box van parked paneled with LED screens in front of City Hall, displaying previous news coverage of the city worker’s complaints and organizing messages like, “Does the City of Ithaca Ithaca support organized labor?” and “We are demanding they support workers’ rights!” 

The messages lit up the corner of Green and Cayuga Streets as the sun set, setting the tone for a Common Council meeting that saw more than 100 people attend. 

Ithaca’s Common Council sitting before a crowd of over 100 attendees on Wednesday. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

What worker’s expressed in November was that many of the city’s employees are demoralized, that suppressed wages have made recruiting challenging and that, as things stand, Ithaca could lose employees to surrounding municipalities or better employment opportunities. Workers also said that bargaining over labor contracts with the city’s negotiation team, led by City Attorney Ari Lavine, has become untenable. Lavine, city workers contend, contributed to a disrespectful and frustrating experience at the bargaining table. The city attorney has maintained that he is executing negotiations according to goals he has been given by Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis and previous administrations.

On Wednesday, three months after the November demonstration, the message was simple: Workers don’t feel like anything has been done.

Jeanne Grace, Ithaca’s city forester and president of the City Executive Association told The Ithaca Voice that “The only thing that’s changed is we have a different lawyer there, and that’s not what we asked for.” 

Grace said that what labor leaders and workers want is for Lewis and other officials with control over the negotiating terms “to sit down and talk with us so we don’t have to come to a public meeting and do this every few months.”

Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) President Tom Condzella said to the council on Wednesday that “It appears to us that the Common Council is either unable or unwilling to make progress for the workers in the city and our community.”

However, the response from the Common Council asked for patience.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock said during Wednesday’s meeting, “You feel unheard, and this process is moving glacially slow for you and I recognize that. The difficulty of government is it does move glacially slow.”

Lewis said, “Council has taken very specific steps to address the needs that have been articulated by staff, and these are, I believe, not Band-Aid measures, but concrete measures.”

Some steps have been made to address the concerns raised by workers in the city, but the City of Ithaca’s challenged financial state was not discussed. It has long been discussed openly among city employees and officials that Ithaca should be pinching pennies and counting its nickels and dimes. 

Compared to Ithaca’s 2022 budget of approximately $84 million, the city’s 2023 budget ballooned to more than $90 million. The City of Ithaca is also contending with a financial liability of $200 million in health insurance benefits that it must provide to now-retired employees. Lavine described this liability as “perilous” in November and shared that it has contributed to a decrease in the city’s credit rating. 

Since November, efforts of Common Council to address the unrest of workforce have included reinstating a labor liaison position, which will mean that one of Ithaca’s councilmembers will sit in at the bargaining table as an observer to relay critical information to councilors, which will likely include verifying the tact taken by the city’s negotiation team with the unions. Alderperson George McGonigal will be filling the role. 

Lavine has also been replaced on the city’s negotiating team by James Roemer of the Albany-based firm Roemer, Wallens, Gold, & Mineaux LLP. Labor leaders had requested for council to consider removing attorneys from the bargaining table, but Lewis and a critical mass of council voted to retain Roemer in December, citing the need to try and quickly finish contract negotiations. 

Grace, who has been advocating for lawyers to be removed from the negotiation process, said on Wednesday that the conversations she’s heard from council about wanting to bring contract negotiations to a close have frustrated her.

“Speaking for myself, I was very frustrated at hearing those discussions since the city has a history of postponing the start of negotiations until after contracts have expired,” she said. “My own group was not able to get a meeting with the city until our contract had been expired for four months.”

At the time, it’s unclear if other efforts forming among councilors to repair their relationship with the city’s bargaining units, which include the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), Department of Public Works (DPW) Unit, CSEA Admin Unit, the IPBA, the Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association (IPFA) and the City Executive Association, which is a bargaining unit not represented by a union.

Currently, three of the city’s bargaining units are out of contract: the IPFA and CSEA DPW unit’s contracts with the city expired in 2020, and the City Executive Association’s last contract expired in 2021. IPBA Vice President Mike Meskill shared with The Ithaca Voice that while the police union’s contract is set to expire in 2023, he’s feeling pessimistic about getting dates with the city’s negotiation team. It took 10 years for the IPBA to negotiate the current contract.

Kevin Eitzmann, the New York State Director of Field Operations for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, speaking to Ithaca’s Common Council on Wednesday. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Kevin Eitzmann, the New York State Director of Field Operations for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), appeared before Common Council on Wednesday. He said that workers came to the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions that advocates on behalf of the needs of organized labor, almost a year ago and that the stories they shared of being “disrespected” at the bargaining table made it clear that “something wasn’t right in the City of Ithaca. 

“I cover the entire state from Buffalo to Long Island with two and a half million members, and I’ve never seen all five unions in a city come together like they have here. And that’s why we’re here,” Eitzmann said.

What’s become abundantly clear is that the city’s workers lost patience long ago, before the issues they’ve been raising were put into the public eye. 

George Apgar, president and president of the IPFA, told the council on Wednesday that “I just want to note that the fact that we’re here tonight should be a red flag to you. This is nothing I want to do.”

Apgar, one of five assistant fire chiefs at the Ithaca Fire Department, said on behalf of himself and his colleagues, “If things don’t change, all five of us are leaving this year. I’ll leave that to you to sort out, how to run the department.”

‘Put every inch of your souls into ending this violence against Black males.’

At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, Lewis began by calling for a moment of silence to recognize the tragic death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee — another Black man to die at the hands of law enforcement.

It was the first meeting of council since Nichols’ death, who was pulled over by police on Jan. 7, allegedly for erratic driving, though no evidence has yet been produced to support this. During the traffic stop, Nichols was removed from his car by Memphis police, and five officers proceeded to pepper spray, tase, restrain, punch, kick and club him to the point of needing to be hospitalized. He died in the hospital days later.

Not long after the crowded council chambers took a moment of silence, Common Council moved to recognize Nunn with the J. Dianne Sams Award. Nunn, a talented musician, founded the locally famed Community United Music Education Program at the Southside Community Center and served as an educator and administrator with the Ithaca City School District for 30 years. Ithaca High School Principal Jason Trumble said on Wednesday that in the 30 years he’s worked with Nunn, “I’ve never heard him say one negative thing about anybody.”

Nunnn said that it was an honor to be associated with Sams, whom he knew as a friend when she was alive. Sams was a civil rights leader, worked as a public servant and also served as the first Black woman on Ithaca’s Common Council, representing the city’s 2nd ward for over a decade.

Nunn said that it was an honor to be a part of Sams’ life and for her to trust him to be one of her children’s mentors. He also said that he taught piano to her sons and coached them in football. “Bradley was one of my running backs and out of fear, he never got touched,” Nunn joked. 

With his family and friends seated behind him as he spoke in the council chambers, the fullness of Nunn’s life, compared to the death of Nichols at the young age of 29, offered a painful contrast. 

Near the end of his brief acceptance speech, Nunn said, “In spite of the challenges that we face in this society, this kind of violence and the destruction of Black males has got to stop. So I’m asking you all to put every inch of your souls into ending this violence against Black males.”

He expressed immense gratitude for his life and family, adding “My life here in Ithaca has been that of a precious one.”

Nunn, his family and friends filed out, and a public comment section soon began, with members of Ithaca’s public sector hammering on their request for council to repair the relationship between workers and the city. 

Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) plan was only evoked once in name when Condzella said during a seven-minute public statement that his efforts to get Ithaca’s mayor and Common Council to write a joint letter with the IPBA haven’t been received, much to his frustration. The intent of the letter, Condzella said, was to send a signal to prospective recruits that no one is going to lose their jobs at the Ithaca Police Department — a concern that emerged alongside the department’s accusation that Ithaca’s RPS plan was an attempt at union-busting in February 2021.

Otherwise, Ithaca’s ambitious public safety reform plan was never expressly mentioned. Clear signs of progress in implementing RPS at the city level have become less and less frequent. The Community Justice Center, (CJC) the joint city and county project to implement aspects of RPS plan, has laid out its 2023 work plan, which will see public safety reform projects implemented across Ithaca and Tompkins County. How the city plans to introduce unarmed and crisis intervention responses, or potentially restructure the Ithaca Police Department (IPD), was derailed after former-Mayor Svante Myrick left office and two ethics investigations into the RPS process.

While no ethical violations were found by the city’s investigation, issues of transparency in the process were identified. Another investigation is still being undertaken by the county’s Ethics Advisory Board, Ithaca’s Common Council moved to create a special Reimagining Public Safety Committee, which will be producing a report with a set of recommendations for how the city should proceed with emergency response alternatives among other points.

The special committee is chaired by McGonigal who said on Wednesday that “The senseless brutal murder of this young man, Tyre Nichols, has hurt the entire nation, it makes one ill. It particularly hurts the Black people of this nation and if we are unsure what generational trauma means, this is what it means. This is it. It’s real. And we have to change that.”

He added that “I will say that I want to thank the Ithaca PBA for the public statement they made after this brutal murder. We have a good police force here.”

In its statement, the IPBA referred to Nichols’ killing as “a depraved criminal act that should have never happened.” It also stated that “All involved must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” concluding that “The murder of Tyre Nichols is a grim reminder that despite our efforts locally, we as a profession have much work to do. We can and must do better.”

Freshman Alderperson Tiffany Kumar, an undergraduate student at Cornell University who established herself as a firebrand during her campaign for public office in 2022, had perhaps the sharpest comments to share on Wednesday regarding Nichols and RPS. 

“I think we, as elected officials, are all directly responsible for the death of Tyre Nichols, of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor. I think that Black and brown men and women are getting their lives cut short across this country and that we are bearing witness to it and abandoning them,” Kumar said. “I think that this should call for — and I’m not going to say that our moment of silence is performative — but I am going to say that it is not enough that this calls for bold and sweeping reform, and that I am tired of hearing feasibility and logistical issues cited as reasons why we can’t change. If feasibility issues arise, I say let them.”

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