ITHACA, N.Y.—Former Ithaca Police Acting Chief John Joly has accused the city of fostering a hostile work environment and discriminating against him as a white man in records obtained by The Ithaca Voice. This is the latest maelstrom to hit the local police department as it undergoes staffing issues and a prolonged search for permanent leadership. 

Joly filed a notice of claim in March, a required step in New York for someone who intends to file a lawsuit against a municipality or government entity. Joly named the City of Ithaca, Mayor Laura Lewis, five Common Council members and Director of Human Resources Schelley Michell-Nunn as defendants, alleging a variety of claims led by Joly’s contention that he was discriminated against by the city for being a white man and that he had suffered damages from not being chosen as police chief for that reason.

The saga spans back to 2021 and has grabbed headlines since. Joly, who started with IPD in 2005, was promoted to Acting Chief from his Deputy Chief spot in 2021, following former chief Dennis Nayor’s retirement in May of that year. Joly was poised to have the “acting” tag removed and made the permanent chief in December after a lengthy search process.

Once his proposed appointment to the chief position became public on Friday evening, Common Council members began to raise a ruckus over his selection during the subsequent 48 hours, with four members of council making on-record statements rejecting his appointment before public discussion even took place. By Monday morning, Mayor Laura Lewis had reversed course and withdrew Joly’s appointment. 

Afterwards, Joly called the process a “sh*tshow,” said he wouldn’t be reapplying to the position if the search was reopened. Most recently, he confirmed to The Ithaca Voice April 23 that he had taken an indefinite personal leave from the department to “focus on maintaining my own personal wellness.” At the time, Joly confirmed that he was pursuing a lawsuit against the city over the situation. The notice of claim was then obtained and reviewed by The Ithaca Voice via a Freedom of Information Law request and can be read in full at the bottom of this article. 

The 10-page notice of claim lays the foundation for the lawsuit, which will apparently focus heavily on Joly’s allegation that he was not selected as chief of police because he is white. It particularly takes aim at Michell-Nunn, a Black woman and one of the longest-tenured figures in city government. Michell-Nunn led the search committee to find the permanent chief of police last year, also organizing three public events for the community to interact and vet the three finalists for the chief job, including Joly, former IPD lieutenant Scott Garin and Binghamton officer Christopher Bracco.

In the lawsuit, Joly claimed that Michell-Nunn was favoring Garin throughout the process because Garin is Black. He insisted the aforementioned community forums were to “orchestrat[e] a confrontational process with question and answer focused on race.” Joly did have one notable faux pas during the forum, when he clumsily stated that lying to the government is a part of Black culture in America, before clarifying that he misspoke and “delivered that terribly,” then corrected himself. 

Garin emerged from the community forums seeming like the favorite, a sentiment fortified when he was chosen nearly unanimously by the search committee, sources have confirmed. However, Lewis overruled them and chose Joly anyway, which counters Joly’s claim of discrimination, though Lewis’ pick then went awry. 

The inclusion of members of council—Cynthia Brock, George McGonigal, Jorge Defendini, Ducson Nguyen and Jeffrey Barken—explicitly stems from an article published in The Ithaca Voice detailing their various objections to Joly’s appointment, except for McGonigal. The comments ranged from saying Joly hadn’t done enough to combat systemic racism to referencing Joly’s past at the department. Namely, pointing out that Joly himself was the subject of hostile work environment claims by IPD investigator Christine Barksdale in 2019 to the state’s Division of Human Rights, in which she said he had discriminated against her because she is a Black woman. The division ruled that she did not provide sufficient evidence to prove her claims. 

“The Alderpersons support and perpetuate an atmosphere and policy and practice of race discrimination by endorsing and encouraging the selection of personnel based upon their status as a minority and specifically exhibit bias as against Caucasian personnel,” Joly’s claim states before taking aim at diversity initiatives in the city. “This discriminatory bias is repeatedly exercised and justified by a false narrative that they are seeking to ‘diversity’ city personnel. This use of the term ‘diversity’ is intended to provide advantages to hiring and promotion of Black applicants and is to the detriment of Caucasian and non-Black applicants.” 

According to the claim, Common Council member George McGonigal’s inclusion stems from comments he allegedly made (apparently in private, since there does not seem to be a public record of the comments) regarding Joly’s candidacy for the permanent chief job. 

Further in the claim, Joly also accuses Nguyen and Brock of “false and defamatory” allegations against him related to a separate issue that has played out largely privately. Joly, along with IPD lieutenants Jacob Young and David Amaro, were anonymously accused of overtime fraud via whistleblower complaint in December 2022, after Joly’s appointment had fizzled and the subsequent firestorm had died down. Brock and Nguyen have explained that they only passed the allegations on to have them investigated—Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten asked the New York State Police to investigate the accusations and confirmed earlier this month that no wrongdoing was found by any of the officers accused. 

Lewis told the Voice she could not comment on personnel matters. City Attorney Ari Lavine and Michell-Nunn did not respond to a request for comment. None of the Common Council members mentioned in the notice of claim responded to a request for comment. 

Joly did not respond to a message for comment either. 

If Joly’s claims seem somewhat familiar, it’s because they are similar to claims made by IPD officer Chris Miller against the City of Ithaca a decade ago. Miller claimed that he was passed over for promotion because he is white and that Black officers were being promoted unfairly. Joly was subpoenaed and testified in support of Miller during that case. Joly is using the same attorney, AJ Bosman, who represented Miller in his fight against the city. 

Miller’s 2005 allegations that he was being passed over for promotion and discriminated against for being white were determined to be unfounded, according to the Division of Human Rights. But when the city moved to terminate him, Miller claimed in 2008 that the city was retaliating against him because of his initial discrimination complaints. That case created a back-and-forth legal battle that finally ended in 2021, when the city agreed to a settlement with Miller for $420,000 and paid his legal fees, totaling nearly $1 million. Miller had originally sought $17 million. 

“This settlement was a business decision in the best interests of the City and its taxpayers,” then-Mayor Svante Myrick said at the time. “After nearly a decade of litigation including three federal trials and two appeals, settlement simply became cheaper than continued litigation that showed no signs of letting up.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief at The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at