Credit: Design by Caleb Harrington / The Ithaca Voice

This is the first in a series of articles The Ithaca Voice will be posting each day throughout the week previewing the contested elections in the Democratic primaries for Ithaca’s Common Council. Included is a recap of last week’s candidate forum, as well as the audio and a transcript from the relevant Candidate Conversation collaboration between WRFI and The Ithaca Voice, sponsored in part by Cayuga Health. Early voting begins June 17 and primary Election Day is June 27.

ITHACA, N.Y.—Alderperson Cynthia Brock and Kayla Matos, candidates running to represent the City of Ithaca’s First Ward for a four-year term, proved they are split on ideas to address public safety and homelessness in the city during the candidate forum June 8. 

They fielded a litany of questions from members of the public and at a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County. Their stances proved to overlap on some issues. Both criticized the development of luxury housing in the City of Ithaca as the cost of housing remains unaffordable for many city residents. But the biggest disagreement between Brock and Matos, the deputy director of the Southside Community Center, would not come up during the forum — the now-concluded ethics investigations that Brock had called for into the potential of third-party influence on Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety process.

The candidate forum was held at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, and featured each candidate seeking a seat on Common Council in the five contested Democratic primaries. Each candidate was permitted to make an opening statement before being separated out into question-and-answer sessions with constituents. Similar coverage of each other ward race will be published throughout the week leading up to the start of early voting.

To jump to different sections of the story:

Candidate Forum

Brock, a 12-year incumbent, is the longest serving seated member of the city’s Common Council. Throughout the evening, Brock relied on her deep understanding of city processes and policy. Matos, a lifelong Ithacan who’s seeking public office for the first time, is running as a member of the Solidarity Slate, a group of five candidates offering a progressive-socialist vision to voters.

Matos emphasized her roots in Ithaca, her role as deputy director at the Southside Community Center, and the perspective that growing up with limited financial means gave her. The daughter of a single mother, Matos said in her opening remarks, “My family has faced many of Ithaca’s not so gorgeous realities, realities that too many families face.” 

Brock and Matos were asked to share their thoughts on addressing crime in the First Ward, as well as their feelings concerning  “defunding the police in view of the criminalization of homelessness.”

Matos said she believes the root cause of crime is due to a lack of resources. Common Council approved over $14.7 million in the 2023 city budget for the Ithaca police department out of a budget of about $90.3 million. Explaining her stance on police department funding, Matos emphasized her view that some money from the current police budget should be redirected.

“I do believe that we can really reallocate our police budget so that we can serve our community to better standards,” Matos said. “And that means mental health professionals, that means unarmed officers.”

The City of Ithaca’s Police Department has struggled to restore its staffing to pre-pandemic numbers, a common point of contention between city leadership and the local police that existed well before COVID-19 arrived.

Brock said “we definitely need a fully staffed police department” in response to the question of defunding the Ithaca Police Department. She said she agrees with the effort to integrate mental health professionals into emergency responses, but said “in order to have this fully integrated system, we need a well-staffed and well-supported police department.” 

The issue of homelessness would yield the most rebuttals between Brock and Matos. Their initial responses to the issue would focus, in part, on Home Together, Tompkins, an ambitious plan to address homelessness with a housing first approach created by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, a nonprofit focused on health and human services. 

The plan, which was released in April of this year, is a comprehensive action plan as much as it is also a challenge to local governments to address and serve the local homeless population. The plan calls for, among other measures, 100 units of permanent supportive housing to be built as part of a “housing surge” strategy. However, Brock said, “once those 100 units are filled, we will still have more individuals who are vulnerable coming into homelessness.”

The First Ward is home to “The Jungle,” a homeless encampment adjacent to Lowe’s home improvement store and Nate’s Floral Estates, a community of mobile homes. The existence and gradual expansion of the encampment is an issue that is top of mind for many residents in the First Ward, and the topic would yield a volley of rebuttals and responses from Brock and Matos. 

Matos brought up a shelter proposal Brock has backed, known as The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES), which would formally restrict the area that the City of Ithaca allows for individuals to live homelessly while providing cabins and supportive services in the Jungle. 

The city currently has a no-camping policy that is effectively unenforced. TIDES has gathered little buy-in from city officials, and has languished as an aspiration for its proponents since it was introduced in April 2022. The city discussed another plan earlier this year, which would effectively prioritize places in the city where camping would be forbidden, though it seems enforcement action would wait until after a year—a year that would be spent, in part, convincing those in campsites in restricted areas to voluntarily move.

Matos labeled TIDES as an effort that would result in “policing our unhoused.”

Brock responded, “Creating safe outdoor spaces for people to be is not criminalizing people who live unhoused. It’s providing support and protection to them.”

Matos rebutted, “When they are criminalized and put into a cell because they decide that they want to sleep at a park because that is the safest spot for them to be, I don’t believe that it’s fair. And a lot of the time, they are just sleeping and I don’t understand where there is danger to a community or anybody in the community when somebody is asleep.”

“Nobody is proposing putting anyone in a cell,” Brock responded.

“TIDES supports that,” shot back Matos.

“No,” Brock insisted, before the event’s moderator moved the two candidates onto another topic.

The question and answer session between Brock and Matos remained largely cordial, but in an interview prior to the candidate forum, Matos expressed some criticism of her opponent that did not emerge on Thursday. Those critiques focused on the two ethics investigations into potential third-party influences in Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety initative, which were conducted by the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board and the City of Ithaca. 

Matos said she felt that the ethics investigation that Brock initiated “muted the voices of the Black and Brown community” that had guided the development of the working group’s plan. 

The Common Council ultimately moved to generate a new plan for public safety reforms concerning the City of Ithaca’s Police Department. The investigation from the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board determined that four ethics violations and four appearances of an ethics violation took place, all of which were not intentional according to the TCEAB. Under state law, the county ethics board has the power to issue opinions on ethics complaints it reviews, but they do not carry legal weight.

Matos said she did not think the ethics investigation was “malicious,” but that it was “pretty much a waste of city money and city funding and time,” and did not reveal anything of substance. The City of Ithaca spent over $70,000 to pay for an attorney to conduct an investigation, which concluded in December 2022

Brock said she stands by the investigation, and said that it revealed a “disillusioning” process went into the development of a plan to develop a major reform of the city’s police department.

“I think on all sides people felt that the process was unfair in different ways,” Brock said. “But I think what the investigation did do is actually reveal to everyone the process that had been undertaken, and in that exposure in that transparency in actually seeing what happened.”

Throughout the night, Brock illustrated her vision that the city needs to start collaborating with neighboring municipalities and the county government to solve its problems. Staffing shortages, aging infrastructure, a housing market that remains unaffordable — all of these issues “cannot be solved within Ithaca’s 10 square miles,” Brock said. 

Brock said on the issue of housing, “We can’t solve our housing crisis in the city itself. We just don’t have the space. We really need to start to consider moving people up to the hills and increasing and providing support there.”

Continuing to build dense housing in the flats of Ithaca, which is a natural floodplain, is an approach which Brock said needs to be reevaluated. 

“All of our grocery stores are in the flats, all of our services are in the flats, and what will happen to the city of Ithaca if we do get the 100-year flood,” Brock said.

Matos’ underlying message throughout Thursday was a call for the City of Ithaca to invest in community organizations to support their residents. 

“My campaign is a part of the Ithaca Solidarity Slate, a grassroots group of five progressive candidates working to put the diverse needs of our community before the profits of the few,” Matos said during her opening statement. “I’m running for council to make sure our city takes care of everyone and keeps everyone safe.”

AUDIO

Audio of the interview with Brock and Matos can be found here, courtesy of WRFI.

Transcript of Ward 1 Candidate Conversation

Why do you think the approach taken over the last five to 10 years has been ineffective at stopping rent climbs in the city of Ithaca? Does it need more time or does it need to change?

Kayla Matos: I personally believe that the approach needs to change. I think that the systems that we have in place for “rent control” right now are still allowing power for the developers. We are requiring a small percentage of affordable housing units in these developments that are being built or having developers pay, once again, a small amount into this pool of I believe only $5,500 per unit which in the long run doesn’t really equate to much. And when affordable housing is scarce in our city, we definitely need more than a couple hundred thousand [dollars] to create actual livable, good quality, affordable housing units.

Cynthia Brock: I think the approach of the last five to ten years has really been to build housing inventory, not really to build affordable housing. We have increased density in Collegetown and the downtown core but because of the college market, the demand for housing just far outstrips the supply. As we build more housing, people come from the surrounding areas and move in and pay the same rents. If we want affordable housing they need to be income-focused in terms of their development gains or purpose, and we just are not building that fast enough because those tax-credited development projects have to compete for those tax credits in order to develop, oftentimes they’re competing against each other so we may only get one development at a time rather than the multiple developments that we need. I think that is a broken system. And really, on a state and national level, we need the federal government to actually build affordable housing. They are able to build more units per dollar than we can through a market-based tax incentive system.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about how much Cornell pays the city of Ithaca, because so much of its property is tax-exempt. What would you like the financial relationship between the city and Cornell to look like?

CB: I definitely think that we need to seek agreements with Cornell to increase their contribution. Right now, they pay $1.6 million to the city in 2023, of which just under a million is for fire service. That doesn’t come near the cost of what we provide in services. Cornell provides cutting-edge research and technology. We have to have highly trained staff to help them plan for the development of those sites to make sure that they can be safe, to make sure that we have the response systems that are appropriate for the type of materials and technology that is on campus. I’d like to see that contribution go up. I also believe that the wear and tear on our roads that is associated with all the workers and visitors that come to Cornell far outstrip their contribution towards our general fund. Additionally, there are many ways that we can work together under our shared goals to help Cornell contribute to the costs of those services, namely wastewater treatment, and having to do with stormwater runoff. I believe that we can have closer partnerships to support the city and support Cornell at the same time.

KM: I also agree, I do believe that Cornell does need to contribute more to our city. They own, I believe, approximately 60% of [the property in the City of Ithaca]. So they are a large stakeholder in the city of Ithaca and with them having a large amount of faculty as well as students in our city. I do believe they should contribute on a monetary level, that would be great. However, understanding that might be a little tough, but like Cynthia said, contributing to our infrastructures, our roads, even you know, contributing more to TCAT, public transportation [that] their students and their faculties are using them, we have many, many routes in Cornell. So just noticing that we are a resource that they rely heavily on and just honoring that, but it’s something that I would love to push for and I am talking about during my run.

Do you like the Reimagining Public Safety plan? Why or why not? And there’s a sub-question, which is what do you think the Ithaca Police Department should look like in three years?

KM: I do support reimagining public safety. Just from my own personal experiences, I’ve had family members who had struggles with mental health, and when reaching out to the police, they pretty much told us that they could not help us unless my family member was committing a crime. And I don’t believe that those who struggle with mental health should be criminalized. Within the police department within three years, I would hope that there would be more representation. I’m currently, in my role as Deputy Director at Southside, working with some members of the police department to try to increase diversity, connecting them with people of color in the community who were interested and have applied for positions before in our department, and for whatever reasons never got pushed through. So reconnecting them, getting them set up to take those exams. I would love to see unarmed officers as well, like I said, to respond to those with [mental health issues]. I was just talking to my team the other day, and I’m not quite sure if this percentage was right, but I think they said that about 1/3 of our calls could be handled with unarmed officers. So just figuring out how we can incorporate that into our police department, to not police our people but really support our community.

CB: I fully support the reimagining public safety plan that the city adopted and we need to do. We need to address public safety with strong collaboration with the county, as Kayla mentioned, being able to provide an appropriate mental health response. [Someone] facing mental health struggles should not be a criminal event and should not be responded to with law enforcement. Included in reimagining public safety is an unarmed co-response team mainly dealing with peer support. I don’t believe that we will have unarmed officers responding, but rather a peer support team co-responding with police officers and they are intended to be there to provide support services and a warm handoff from victims and families who have struggled through an incident and connect them with the services that they might need to assist them into the future. In three years, I hope to see a fully established police chief, a Deputy City Manager that will help oversee law enforcement and their connections with the county with mental health response, and full establishment of our peer co-response team and thorough integration of the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program. 

What’s the most important quality that the incoming city manager should possess? And what should the dynamic between Common Council and the city manager be?

CB: The qualities I’m looking for [are] transparency and communication. Council and the mayor are the policy-makers. The city manager is the chief administrator of the organization. As policymakers, we rely on staff to inform and educate council members of the situation that our departments are facing on the ground to fully inform us whether or not we’re dealing with staffing shortages, price increases, administrative barriers, legal barriers, supply chain issues. All of the barriers that we face in implementing our stated goals for this city need to be fully addressed. Again, the city manager in having that level of communication and coordination with council, we can then fully achieve the goals that we set forward for our community.

KM: I would echo what Cynthia said with transparency and communication, especially going into a new role. I know our city is probably a little unsure about exactly what a city manager is going to do and how their role can really contribute to the well-being of our city. So being transparent within their work and what their goals are for the city. Communicating with, once again, council and staff of their needs, but also our employees needs so that everyone is fully heard. And then also holding all of the city staff and city departments accountable is another big thing. I do believe that accountability is something that we need to work more on in the city, across all boards.

The Seneca Street parking garage is facing a similar situation that the Green Street parking garage was facing about five years ago. What do you think is the best future use of that site?

KM: I am still learning about the Seneca Street parking lot. I don’t have much knowledge. However, I do believe that keeping it as a hub for transportation is always one of the best things, we do struggle with public transportation here in our city. So just any way to increase the public transportation, increase usage of buses, even potentially making it a spot for our buses that go in between like New York City and here because I know that’s definitely unclear, especially with our students. Where exactly to go, how to catch the bus, all that good stuff. I’ve had to handle that confusion within myself. So I would love to see it become like a centralized public transportation location.

CB: I fully agree with Kayla. It has been envisioned that we could turn the first floor of the Seneca Street garage into an intercity bus depot. That would allow a location for buses to stop and passengers to get on and off the bus without backing up traffic. Hopefully, there would be a space for bathrooms and ticket sales and other types of community services so people can wait for the bus safely, get off the bus safely and also allow areas for if they have rides to and from home or their dorm. There is space for their support transportation to be, but of course, ideally what we want is people to be able to have immediate access from the intercity bus system into TCAT so that there’s a continuous transportation network. And as you mentioned, Matt, where we are now with the Seneca Street garage and our need to redesign and rebuild that facility is that perfect opportunity. We do need parking downtown, and as downtown becomes more active and we see more housing in the downtown area, we will need parking in order to support those residents and businesses as well.

The city’s struggling to attract and retain workers for various departments. How can the city realistically address that problem?

CB: I think workers are looking for stability when they look for a place to invest their lives and establish their careers. By having a city manager, it will allow that professional continuity in terms of the management of the city organization, which will go a long way to providing that stability. We need a council that is dedicated to supporting our employees, making sure that they are getting market wages, that they have competitive benefits, that they feel welcomed and supported in their workplace. They need to be able to bring their whole selves to work and be protected and nurtured in that work environment. I mean, face it, most of us spend more time at work than we do with our families. So that work environment is really, really important. There has been a fair amount of instability in the city, some of it caused by the pandemic and the furloughs that our city staff were subject to, as well as other structural instability that came along with questions of how we would deal with particular departments in the city. I think we’re coming out of that period, and I think everyone I’m speaking to is very much committed to having a strong and supported city organization.

KM: I agree with Cynthia as well. I do think that the culture within the departments we as Common Council and city staff, city manager, we have to work on improving those. We need our employees, especially the minority will — quote unquote “minorities,” because now we’re becoming majorities — to feel comfortable within their workspaces and feel welcome because if they’re not comfortable and welcomed, then their productivity is not going to be where we want it to be. Also working [with] work organizations to do job fairs, career fairs so that we can also get more people interested in these career opportunities. And also educating the public about the career opportunities that we have within the city and navigating how to apply, training our community members on how to sit for serve civil service exams, because not all of us are great test takers, and that could be a downfall for some of us. And just getting creative with the methods on how to bring more people in and then how to retain them as well.

What do you think of the progress of the Ithaca Green New Deal so far? And what do you think that common council in its capacity should be doing, if anything, to push it along?

KM: I completely support this Green New Deal. I think the electrification of the cities is great. And I think Common Council, the best way to push it along is finding out the Director of Sustainability, getting somebody in there, first and foremost, and then just figuring out how to support the work that they want to do. My biggest concern with the Green New Deal is one of the places that they want to start is the Southside neighborhood, which is great, but just making sure that it’s affordable for people, and that our people aren’t going to have to take on their costs, and by “our people” [I mean] like our renters and homeowners, are going to take on the cost largely to having to electrify their homes. I know that we had a homeowner in the Southside neighborhood working with our Southside Community Center. And she went ahead and did a quote on her electrification of her home and that was around $15,000. So just figuring out as Common Council members also how we could partner with community organizations, and figure out ways to bring in more funding so that we can support these communities in these conversions, because this could definitely be a huge cost to our homeowners and renters, especially our renters who will be seeing these financial burdens and then including all that’s happening the whole FEMA and the flood mapping, having to take on those costs as well.

CB: So the steps that council took to further the Green New Deal were to establish building standards for new construction to create an energy program where residents and property owners in the city would default to renewable energy sources. And we’re creating a financial incentive program to make it affordable for people to voluntarily implement electrification of their buildings. There’s nothing in place that is requiring individuals to make changes to their home preemptively. But when furnaces and other high electric electricity or energy using the facilities you know in their building need to be replaced. We want to make it affordable and attractive for people to use energy efficient electrification systems in their homes. I think that finding ways to work with individuals and making sure that the process is streamlined and easy and affordable for them will push it along so that more and more property owners will voluntarily participate but at this point, it’s not a requirement that people’s furnaces or refrigerators or stoves are required to be replaced by a certain time.

The prevailing thought is that the West End and the Inlet are the next targets for development in the city. What do you think should be the focus for development in those areas?

CB: Well, the waterfront zoning plan really allows for increased density and makes use of the waterfront area. The proposals that come forward from developers, as long as it meets those criteria, will qualify for a development just as of right. I strongly urge that any new development have a mix of incomes in that project, and ideally should have mixed-use. I’d like to see as many public amenities included in those projects as possible so that all developments can be a resource for the larger community, not just those who live at the site. This is a narrow strip of waterfront however, and I am also very mindful that the waterfront is the in the 100-year floodplain and I think from a long-term perspective, I think we need to evaluate the sustainability of continuing to develop the city in the floodplain.

KM: So I think, within a short answer, affordable housing is what needs to be developed in those areas. Within that area, I would say a lot of our low-income families are there, being in the Arthaus and West Village. The one good thing about the West End and the waterfront is that it’s still within a good walking distance of our stores and our downtown area. So, therefore, creating more affordable housing in those areas is ideal and keen. I think that also, I might stand corrected, but the Home Together, Tompkins [plan] would essentially be within that area as well to house or help support our unhoused applicants. So also pushing for that to be seen, or put through as well. I believe is needed 

What do you think is the most underrated issue facing your ward something that affects the residents of your ward, more specifically than any of the other citywide issues we’ve been talking about.

KM: I believe that a lot of my ward faces tenant [issues], the big issue within my ward is tenant protections. We do have a good amount of housing or apartment complexes there within the ward, like once again, West Village. We have the Southview Gardens. We have Parkside Gardens. Like I said, a good amount. I do believe that the treatment from some of the organizations to their residents is not fair or just. For example, [Ithaca Housing Authority] renovating their apartment complexes and then moving the families, I believe has contributed to  soft evictions, essentially making it a little bit harder for families to move back into their homes or making it unaffordable. I do know a family that can no longer afford their apartment, after being there for 20 years, once renovations are done. So those are things once again, tenant protections aren’t there, also contributing to gentrification within the area that was once predominantly many people of color, and homeowners at that. So my goal is to push for better tenant protections, such as ETPA, good cause evictions, so on, so forth, so they can feel secure in their home because one of my favorite things is that it might be a landlord’s property or house but it is that family’s home, where memories are created.

CB: The new FEMA flood maps basically encompass the entire flats of the First Ward. Most significantly is in the Northside neighborhood, as well as Southside, South Titus and Spencer Road neighborhoods. This will have a devastating impact on renters and property owners who will be facing significant costs due to the requirement for flood insurance. Some families might see $200 to $500 a month increase associated with the requirement of flood insurance. There are some plans that are being put into place having to do with putting up flood walls along Fall Creek, Cascadilla Creek and Six Mile Creek as well as dredging the Inlet. Both of these solutions will take many years to implement. Although I also am very concerned with the impact of climate change on our region and the likelihood that we will see lake level rise, in which case the floodwalls will have little to no impact. So looking into the future, I think we need to think about building resiliency for our community and our neighborhoods, both in the short term, in terms of what how we can keep them safe while they’re there, but also resiliency in the long term, how can we build housing in areas outside of the floodplain and reduce the impact on our low-income communities.

Closing statements: 

CB: Thank you to WRFI community radio and the Ithaca Voice for hosting and for allowing us to share our ideas with the community. I also want to thank Kayla Matos for running for office. It takes courage and commitment to run for election and having been through this a few times, I recognize the personal sacrifice involved. Competitive races produced better elected representatives and too many local elections go uncontested. The most important part of any campaign is the door to door. I personally knocked on over 1,000 doors in the new First Ward, reconnecting with constituents in the West Hill, West End, Nate’s Floral Estates and Spencer Road neighborhoods, and introducing myself to residents in Northside, Southside and south of the creek. Every year the door-to-door allows me to see firsthand how people are doing, to build relationships, to go to ground truth proposals, plans and projects that come forward. Residents don’t hesitate to let me know what their values and priorities are and what works and what doesn’t work, which often is very different from what is included in discussion threads or social media. For over a decade, I have made it my commitment to do my homework, ask questions and check my assumptions. It is important to have council members who will sit down with people from all sides, who are open minded, will facilitate discussion and input, and will work to understand different perspectives and concerns. We must be as informed as possible so that we on council can understand the consequences of our actions and develop solutions that will have a positive, meaningful impact on people’s lives. As your First Ward representative I promise not to be distracted by slogans and national agendas, remain dedicated to supporting and implementing policies and programs that serves the needs values and interests of our residents and our community.
KM: So I would like to start by thanking Celia and Matt for giving us a platform to come and speak on. For those who don’t know, I am the Deputy Director of Southside Community Center and I’m also the treasurer for an indigenous nonprofit organization that came about as a response from the pandemic. With that being said, I feel like those two, with me holding those two positions, I am able to hold a position on Common Council. I understand the impact of what it means when community comes together and I also understand what the community needs. Being at Southside, I’ve been able to be pretty much a center point for my community’s needs, and I’ve been able to be a resource as well and respond to the problems that our community faces. I spent a large majority of my job problem solving as well as you know, crunching numbers and doing budget stuff, which I think pretty much encompasses what the position on Common Council does. I am an every day Ithacan, I’ve experienced a lot of the disparities that our systems have created for our disenfranchised communities. I come from a single mother who has faced housing insecurity who has faced food insecurities. So just trying to play a role as a community organizer where we don’t have to continue to allow those mishaps to happen and become a better support for our community and build up our community.

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief of The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.org.

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