This is the second of two articles reporting the contents of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board’s opinion and investigation in response to a complaint filed by Alderperson Cynthia Brock. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board (TCEAB) released their opinion last week on a wide-ranging ethics complaint filed by Alderperson Cynthia Brock in which she raised concerns around the potential of procedural issues, third party influence, and conflicts of interest in Ithaca’s high profile law enforcement reform effort: Reimagining Public Safety.

But, while the TCEAB would agree on four different ethics violations and four appearances of  violations, many of the threads that the TCEAB investigated brought up by Brock’s complaint did not result in the discovery of any violations.    

Much of Brock’s complaint was concerned with the circumstances surrounding the development of a report and set of recommendations developed by a city working group. The group, formed in June 2021, was tasked with fleshing out a national headline grabbing plan to replace the City of Ithaca’s police department. The plan they would produce, titled “Implementing the City of Ithaca’s New Public Safety Agency” was released in March 2022, would detail a path forward for introducing unarmed responders into a new department, offer recommendations on how to configure the response to different emergency calls, and create a new civilian oversight position.

Former Mayor Myrick would see two violations and four appearances of a violation attributed to him by the board, all of which concerned his concurrent employment with People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization which Myrick has been employed at since 2017, while he was in office. 

However, none of the violations that the board identified, or the appearances of a violation seemed “intentional,” determined the TCEAB.

While the TCEAB’s investigation has detailed procedural issues in the Reimagining Public Safety process, particularly in the City of Ithaca, the experience of the ethics investigation has proven to be problematic for some.

Laura Branca, Project Director of the Dorothy Cotton Institute — a local nonprofit that had been investigated for potentially influencing the decision making of the working group, but has been cleared of any unethical conduct — said in an interview with The Ithaca Voice, “f there was ever a real intent to heal the relationship between the city and law enforcement and communities of color this was a huge, huge mistake, and very damaging,” said Branca. “Who would want to volunteer to participate further in the city’s efforts to solve systemic racism when you know what happens to people who’ve tried to do that?”

Payments to working group members

Brock’s complaint would put forward the concern that the development of the report had been influenced by the interest of third parties. The working group, which was handpicked by former Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, included police officers, members of Ithaca’s Common Council, members of the local community, including many community members of color, as well as individuals from different marginalized groups. 

The group would meet behind closed doors, with the stated reason for the choice being to allow the working group’s members to speak freely during difficult conversations out of the public eye. The choice would prove to raise uncertainty around who was guiding the direction of the working group.

In her complaint, Brock would ask the TCEAB to investigate if the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) had a larger role in the development of the RPS report than what was previously disclosed, including undue influence as the development of the plan continued with CPE’s facilitation.

CPE had been involved as a facilitator in the development of the county and the city’s initial Reimagining Public Safety plan, adopted in March 2021, and would continue to work with the city as a facilitator for the working group’s meetings. These services were provided by CPE free of charge — a normal practice for CPE — but Brock’s complaint would question whether the organization had an agenda guiding its participation 

Brock’s complaint also revealed a plan to compensate members of the working group that was not known to the public or Ithaca’s Common Council until after the group had their recommendations and report on restructuring the Ithaca Police Department in March 2022. 

The compensation plan was connected to the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, and the Park Foundation — though the Park Foundation’s involvement was limited to approving a grant application from the Center for Transformative Action. The stated intentions of the Dorothy Cotton Institute were to compensate the members of the working group who were asked to participate in developing the public safety reform plan on the basis of their lived experience. 

While those members of the working group had initially agreed to volunteer their time, other members of the group, like police officers, were being paid by the hour for their contributions. Members of Common Council that were in the group receive an annual stipend for their work as elected officials.

Compensating the participants, who were mostly people of color, that volunteered their time was a matter of equity, said Anke Wessels in an interview with The Ithaca Voice. “We got involved, as we’ve said before, because we wanted to make sure that these working group members who were selected from the communities, whose voices were essential to make sure that the outcomes were legitimate. […] that they get compensated,” said Wessels.

And Brock’s complaint asked the TCEAB to investigate whether members of the working group, including its co-leads Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, should have recused themselves from their work, but would determine that no actual conflict of interest was present for working group members as a result of the planned payments — most of which were never disbursed according Branca and Wessels. 

However, no ethics violations were attributed to the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, or the Park Foundation by the TCEAB. Rosario and Yearwood, and the working group members were also determined to be free of having made any violations. 

Neither Rosario or Yearwood responded to a request for an interview from The Ithaca Voice.

Branca, the Project Director of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, said, “It’s glaringly obvious that the people who are accused of wrongdoing and whose characters were questioned are almost all Black and Brown people, working class people, students — the very people that they were mandated to include, and to create a better relationship with.”

On the potential of whether the recommendations and the report of the working group may have been affected by planned payments, the TCEAB found “no evidence before it to suggest any intent by these organizations to influence either the selection of Working Group members or their ultimate recommendations. Further, the evidence demonstrates that affirmative steps were taken to intentionally avoid this problem.”

A narrow issue that was at hand was whether the working group members were operating as city officials or not. That status would have made them subject to the code of ethics, and while the TCEAB determined that all the individuals in the working group were, technically, city officials, the facts are that they were not informed as such.  Working group members were not advised on the city’s code of ethics, which would make it “unjust” to attribute any impropriety to them, the TCEAB determined.

The Ethics Advisory Board’s opinion reads, “There is no dispute that the Working Group members invested significant effort in the process and engaged in spirited debate. Putting aside the review of the process which led to the payments, we find that the Working Group members acted in bona fide good faith and fully intended to provide a valuable public contribution to the community.”

The payments not being planned transparently raised “appreciable speculation within our community about intent. Doing so without prior public disclosure has only increased such speculation,” wrote the TCEAB in their opinion. That, though, was a city decision and that payments were directed to working group members directly, instead of through the city, has been characterized as an administrative error by city officials. 

The intent of compensating working group members for their lived experience is “a valid point” wrote the TCEAB, but “it would have been better practice for the City to ensure transparency in public discussion regarding the merits, policy, and process, of these payments.”

Exactly where the plan to submit payments to the working group members originates remains unclear in the eyes of the TCEAB. The funds were planned to move from the Dorothy Cotton Institute to working group members. Wessels and Branca have maintained that they acted of their own accord to deliver compensation to working group members.

If the city had solicited DCI, CTA, or another organization to make payments to members of the Working Group with the intent to influence their decision making, then it would constitute a violation of the city ethics code, the TCEAB states in their opinion.

Speaking about the payment plan, Brock told The Voice in an interview that the TCEAB’s investigation “really gave me food for thought in terms of how everything played out and allowed me to see that work in a different way.”

The intent of compensating community members in the working group for contributing their lived experiences to the development of public safety reforms is an idea that Brock said  “I completely understand and agree [with].” Though the plan should have been developed publicly, she added. “If you do something like that it needs to be open and transparent and should be approved in advance.”

Wessels expressed that if there might be any silver lining, for her, that could come out of the ethics investigation, it would be for the City of Ithaca to explore establishing policies around compensating community members who are contributing their lived experience projects in the city. 

“If you’re going to volunteer, if you’re going to serve on a public commission or working group, there’s an assumption that you can afford to do that, there’s an assumption that you have time to do that. […] That excludes a lot of people, obviously,” said Wessels. “There’s also bias as to what expertise actually is and what it isn’t, and who has who holds expertise and who doesn’t.

Center for Policing Equity

The board declined to offer a determination on the conduct of the Center for Policing Equity, citing a lack of information to do so, but did determine that Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca had violated their procurement policies when they involved CPE in September of 2020. 

CPE’s services had been provided free of charge, but the TCEAB determined that CPE’s qualifications should have been properly reviewed at the time, as any vendor or consultant the county would pay for should be. 

CPE began its work with the city working group “without a contract or other written description of its roles and responsibilities,” wrote the TCEAB. A “glaring concern” for the TCEAB was that CPE’s involvement with the city of Ithaca’s RPS process was that it may have attempted to “advance its own national agenda and special interests into this local public policy process.” 

CPE had proposed a contract of services for its continued work with the City of Ithaca to facilitate the meetings of the working group. The total cost of which they set at $700,000. The city declined to pay this, though. At least $47,480 of consultant services were also paid for by CPE to contribute to the working group’s report. 

While the donation of services from CPE might be seen as a boon to a small, cash-strapped municipality like the City of Ithaca, it also piqued the interest that CPE’s substantial financial and personnel investments in Ithaca’s RPS effort had ulterior motives.

The City of Ithaca paid around $70,000 for an independent investigator to conduct an internal investigation into the concerns that Brock raised around third party influence on Ithaca’s RPS process. The investigator, Kristen Smith of the law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, wrote a report that was released by the city in December 2022. In Smith’s report, differing assessments of CPE’s influence on the direction of the working group are attributed to “witnesses” to the group’s meetings. 

One witness is quoted saying the experience was like “coloring within the lines of the CPE coloring book.” Yet others regarded CPE as being a fair facilitator, refraining from guiding the direction of the working group. The TCEAB would also find this to be the opinion of the group’s co-leads, Rosario and Yearwood.

However, since individual accounts differ on whether CPE had an outsized role in the formation of the working group’s report are conflicting, and many of them come as a secondary source, the TCEAB refrained from making a conclusion on the scope of CPE’s involvement in the RPS process.

The Center for Policing Equity has maintained the stance that the process it facilitated was community led. In a written statement provided to The Ithaca Voice, CPE said that it “is dedicated to making policing less racist, less deadly, and less omnipresent. We will continue to partner with any community, anywhere, anytime, interested in finding new ways to redesign public safety. We gather and analyze data on behaviors within public safety systems and use those data to help communities achieve safer policing outcomes, something every community should strive toward.”

Looking forward

The complaint Brock filed, and the concerns she raised that Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety plan, would ultimately move Ithaca’s Common Council to shelve the working group’s report and recommendations. Ithaca’s RPS initiative went into limbo for close to a year as Common Council reconstituted a plan to further local public safety reforms and, in April 2023, Ithaca’s Common Council would approve a separate plan to introduce unarmed responders into its public safety system. 

The TCEAB had been asked by Brock in her complaint to determine if the working group’s report was unbiased and appropriate to guide policy changes in the city. This decision though was ultimately beyond the board’s authority, the TCEAB determined. 

The question is “essentially a political one,” Rich John, a Tompkins County Legislator and chair of the TCEAB, told The Ithaca Voice.

“We try to determine was there a violation or the appearance of a violation? That’s our charge,” said John. “The question of whether the working group’s report was fit to guide the city’s future law enforcement reforms, I think, is something that the community has to answer.”

It is, though, in effect, a question that has already been decided.

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