ITHACA, N.Y.—Alderperson Cynthia Brock and her challenger Kayla Matos participated in a lengthy candidate forum on Tuesday in which the issues candidates are split on emerged as the City of Ithaca’s response to homelessness, the Ithaca Police Department, and city funds going toward supporting nonprofits. 

The race is among the most hotly contested in this year’s slate of local elections. Both are seeking a four-year seat representing the city’s first ward. Brock lost the Democratic primary to Matos, who captured about 56% of total votes. Brock, who is in her 12th year on council, has continued her campaign as an independent. 

Tuesday’s forum was held at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles Club, where Brock and Matos spent over two hours responding to questions from the public and rebutting one another’s answers.

The event was organized by the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — which has endorsed Brock — and moderated by Leo Glasgow and Rushika Prasad, two members of the Cornell Society for Speech and Debate. They posed questions to Brock and Matos that were collected from the audience prior to the forum starting. While the forum had been advertised as a “labor forum,” other issues and topics would take center stage. 

Brock’s pitch to voters has relied on emphasizing her experience over her opponent, and deep knowledge of local government policy. On Tuesday, she said the city is facing a “crisis of confidence” as it works to replenish its staffing levels in the Ithaca Police Department and Department of Public Works, and address large, looming infrastructure projects related to issues such as flooding mitigation.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

“We need people in office who have experience and understanding and recognize that words matter, details matter, structures matter,” Brock said. “And this is more than just about providing platitudes and goals.”

Matos won the primary on a wave of support built through grassroots organizing from the local Working Families Party club, the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America, as well as support from the state Working Families Party. She is a member of the Solidarity Slate, a socialist political project in Ithaca whose members have pledged to vote as a bloc on council. Ithaca’s 10-member council already has two members of the slate serving on it: Alderpersons Jorge DeFendini and Phoebe Brown.

Matos has appealed to voters with her life story as a born-and-raised Ithacan with a single-mother that has faced the city’s “not so gorgeous realities.” Matos has promised to advocate for city resources to be distributed to organizations and nonprofits like the one she works for, the Southside Community Center. Matos is the center’s deputy director and helps oversee the operations of afterschool programs, childcare, a food pantry, and a range of other services. 

But Brock takes some issues with that approach. On Tuesday, she said, “I don’t believe that it’s appropriate for government funds to be funding nonprofits,” citing a lack of oversight that the government can extend over nonprofits as opposed to its own agencies. 

Matos has repeatedly said she was inspired to run for office when she appeared before council to request $550,000 of funding for the Southside Community Center to support the renovation of its community kitchen. The council approved at least $250,000 of funding for Southside in its 2023 budget, according to city budget documents

Brock is among the city councilors that have broached the idea that Southside, a nonprofit organization, could become a city department to secure additional city funding — an idea that Matos rejected Tuesday as coming from an “imperialistic and colonization mindset.”

“Southside Community Center has been a long-standing Black institution for almost 100 years, and we should be recognized for the work that we do,” Matos said. “Instead, we’re constantly dishonored, and discredited for anything that we do.”

Matos acknowledged that reporting for Southside “has been difficult” in year’s past, but emphasized that she has begun to provide quarterly updates to the city Comptroller’s Office going back to 2022. Brock responded by saying that those reports “need to be provided to council.”

Matos speaking at Tuesday’s candidate forum. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Moderators posed a question to Matos submitted by an attendee asking her, “How do you feel about the police and their union?”

Matos said that police “are needed” and that she thinks her statements on defunding the police have been “misconstrued.”

“I don’t mean that we have to do away with the police department, because that does not equate to safety,” Matos said. “I do believe we need to reexamine what — our practices in the police department, our interactions with individuals, especially those people of color.”

In a rebuttal, Brock said that she thinks “words matter when statements such as ‘defund police’ are used. It is incredibly destabilizing to our staff and our departments, to people’s confidence in law enforcement.”

On the issue of homelessness in the city, both Matos and Brock agreed that the council’s recently adopted policy to form an area — known as a “green zone” —  where people living without shelter would legally be allowed to a camp is a step in the right direction. 

The city’s homeless camps, broadly known as the Jungle, are spread out across the city of Ithaca’s West End. The hope behind the green zone is for these camps to be consolidated to some degree. The city is intending to have potable water, trash removal, showers, and other amenities and services to improve sanitation and the quality of life in the area. 

But Matos and Brock’s thoughts on the issue begin to split philosophically, and on what to do next.

Matos wants to see the city support a housing first initiative, which would focus on creating housing for people living homelessly. 

In Brock’s view, the approach doesn’t take into account individuals who may not be ready to move into housing whether the issue may be their mental health or addiction related. She said, “Housing first is a wonderful model. We are striving for that. The challenge is that not everybody is housing ready.”

It’s a view which Matos strongly disagrees with. “Nobody should be labeled as housing ready or not housing ready. Housing is a basic human need. Not a right — a need,” Matos said. 

Brock said she has advocated for temporary shelters with heat and electricity to be built as an intermediary step through a policy proposal unveiled in April 2022, known as The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES). 

During the forum, Matos acknowledged that she had never stepped foot in the encampments, but shared that she had an uncle that lived in the Jungle for years. 

In a bright spot in Tuesday’s forum, both candidates were asked to make a positive statement about their opponents.

Matos said, “I really appreciate and admire the way that she could speak about policies and what she pushed for. And it’s something that I look forward to being able to do one day in the future as I continue to develop in my career.”

Brock complimented Matos’ “passion and dedication.”

“She definitely has come forward on behalf of Southside and advocated strongly for the services and the support that it provides to our community,” Brock said. “I do believe that Southside has a role to play in our city. I’ve definitely respected and admired and appreciated Kayla’s energy.”

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