ITHACA, N.Y.—Early voting has begun for the local November elections, determining new Common Council members and a new mayor in Ithaca, with elections also taking place in another nine towns throughout Tompkins County.
Like during the primaries, The Ithaca Voice and local independent radio station WRFI partnered to bring voters interviews with each candidate in a contested election in the city of Ithaca.
The First Ward is the only one with two contested elections, between incumbent Democrat and Solidarity Slate member Phoebe Brown and Republican Zach Winn for the two-year seat representing the ward. The audio and transcript of their discussion is available below. Brown is also running on the Working Families Party line.
In a subsequent article, the race between incumbent Cynthia Brock and Democratic nominee Kayla Matos, also a Solidarity Slate member will be featured. Matos defeated Brock, a 12-year veteran of council, in the Democratic primary in June, but Brock decided to run in the general on the Ithacans for Progress line. Matos is running on the Democratic and Working Families Party line.
CELIA CLARKE: WRFI Community Radio and The Ithaca Voice are bringing you conversations with candidates in the three contested Ithaca Common Council and the mayoral races. I’m Celia Clarke here with Matt Butler, editor-in-chief of the Ithaca Voice. Today, Matt questions Ward 1 candidates. In the first half of the hour, you’ll hear from Phoebe Brown and Zach Winn, who are running for a two-year seat on Common Council. Incumbent Phoebe Brown is part of the Solidarity Slate. She’s on the Democratic Party and Working Families Party ballot lines. Her opponent is Republican Zach Winn.
In the second half of the hour, you’ll hear from incumbent Cynthia Brock running on the Ithacans For Progress ballot line, and her opponent Kayla Matos. Matos is part of the Solidarity Slate and is on the Democratic Party and Working Families Party ballot lines. They’re running for a four-year seat on the Council.
The Ward includes Southside, Northside, and the West End. Each candidate will have 90 seconds to answer each question, then they’ll have two minutes for closing remarks. Occasionally you will hear the timer when a candidate runs out of time.
MATT BUTLER: We’ll start with Phoebe for this one. Ward 1 is a vast area with a really diverse voting population. Now two weeks out of the election and with months of campaigning behind you, what are the issues that are at the forefront for the voters in your ward? Let’s say the top three.
PHOEBE BROWN: I’d say homelessness, the rising homeless encampments. And crime is what I hear from my constituents.
MB: And Zach.
ZACH WINN: I would agree on the issue of homeless encampments that have spread all across the First Ward and even outside of the town, or the city of Ithaca, excuse me. I would term them as opening drug scenes or drug encampments. I don’t believe that the root issue actually is homelessness or a lack of housing. Crime clearly is a major issue that is affecting, you know, all the businesses in the West End. And then also a major issue is the lack of [the] route 14 S bus service or bus service in general to West Hill with 14 has completely eliminated, and now multiple trips, eliminated from the route 14 S bus which now ends at 8 pm, seven days a week, which is massively inconvenient for a number or a lot of people and makes you know, the idea of somebody living on West Hill working anywhere downtown, or perhaps at Itahca College or Cornell, and getting home on the bus, literally impossible. So those are the major three issues that I see.
MB: I want to touch back on the crime issue. Local crime can be confusing, between the differences of how people feel and what the numbers sometimes represent. So do you believe Ithaca has gotten more dangerous in the last, say, five years? Or do you think it’s just become more visible? And what’s your thought on the cause and solution for this?
ZW: I think it’s clear that the crime has increased. A lot. And, you know, I just saw a woman who has made waves here locally for smoking crack on The Commons walking down the street talking to herself, as I was on the way here. I found a bag of meth the other day, turned it in to the cops. And there’s just, you know, a loss of quality of life. And it doesn’t need to be perhaps someone getting stabbed behind the public library, or kidnapped and tortured or your house getting shot up for you to be affected by crime, that can be as simple as your package going missing off your porch. Or even your swing on your porch getting stolen, I see these Ring camera videos that are just, just very odd. And there are people who are intoxicated on methamphetamine and fentanyl, which have basically completely supplanted cocaine and heroin, and it causes people to go into what is like a psychotic episode.
And with bail reform, you know, these people who might have ended up in the jail in order to sober up. That’s a place where a lot of people have hit bottom and gotten clean, that is no longer an option. You hear about people getting arrested at the shelter for attacking staff, and they’re back hours later doing exactly the same thing, or shoplifting at Walmart. So yes, I think it’s gotten much worse. And the numbers don’t really communicate that because if somebody doesn’t get arrested for the crime, it doesn’t make the stats.
MB: And just one follow-up to that would be a lot of people try to steer people away from incarceration around here, but it sounds like you think a little bit more incarceration would be more beneficial. Is that right?
ZW: I think there should be something in between sending someone to jail and sending them to the Green Zone in the Jungle. There needs to be some sort of intervention for people who are in crisis that doesn’t necessarily involve them getting in legal trouble. But certainly taking them out of the situation where they can continue to harm themselves and others.
PB: Yes, I think it’s become more visible. I moved here 31 years ago, and crime was happening then. I think a big part of what is happening is it has moved, it’s not in the same areas that people didn’t pay much attention to. And now it’s in areas that people feel privileged to use their voice. I believe that we have now – which I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – I’m glad that it’s out. Because it’s been happening. And the whole time that I’m here, right, from my perception, it has come out of the hiding places, right into communities that used to feel that did not have to handle this. However, the solution is community. Community working together to help people heal. And I think an important part that was not mentioned is the systemic piece of it, that many of these people are dealing with homelessness, substance abuse, mental health. And there’s a systemic piece that goes along with all of that. And the discussion in the community is, if you don’t clean the root, you’re not going to clear the problem. And so for me, it’s all about going back to the root of the problem.
MB: Lower-income residents of the West End face a different existence than people in poverty living downtown, they have higher barriers to access and services, and you mentioned the transportation issues as well. Is there a feasible solution that the city could help facilitate? What could they do to address that sort of thing? I think we’re gonna start with Phoebe this time.
PB: Actually, I’m really delighted that the zone [the boundaries of the city wards] has changed that I can be a part of representing that community and be involved with that community. I think building trust, building consistency, will help this, this population in that community feel encouraged, and feel empowered. So for me, it’s important, very important to me to remember all times, that I have to be in touch, and close and asking them asking that community what it is they need, and what it is they want of me to see happening. I have a lot of ideas, yes, but I want to first get input from that community.
ZW: I would like, I have, for many years hoped to see a store at West Village. Because once you get past Pete’s, there’s nothing you and that marching up and down Elm Street is that’s a rough trek, even under the best of circumstances as far as the weather. And I think it would be interesting for the city to work with the landlord of West Village to locate a place, perhaps on the property or nearby. And, you know, do what would be necessary with zoning to put a small store there that could provide basic essentials without having to take an Uber or the bus, if it even comes down to go [to the] grocery shopping, the 14S, total elimination of that, and potentially it could serve you know, a lot of people who live on West Hill aren’t necessarily in public housing or struggling with poverty, who just don’t want to have to march all the way downtown to get a gallon of milk. And I just think creating circumstances where, you know, individual people can flourish and provide for one another instead of having to go and spend money at a corporate store with the money itself ending up somewhere outside the community, there could be a lot of people would perhaps jump at the opportunity to open up a small, small store, just to provide for the basic needs of people who exist on West Hill.
MB: Now that the unarmed responders unit seems to be moving forward, structural support is going to be pretty crucial to its lasting success, if there is any. What do you think should be the metric to measure that success in say, two years or five years?
ZW: I’d like to make sure that none of those people are physically harmed. I think that is one of the most important things for the city to be sending unarmed people to respond to crises, they cannot be allowed to be hurt or injured, because that is one of the reasons why you have an armed officer to go with clear scene. Whether that be for the fire department, or first responders under any circumstances. So I would just be very cautious with sending people into what is an emergency call without having the ability to defend themselves, or the assurance that they will continue to remain safe. As far as sending an unarmed person to respond to any call, you’d have to be certain that what they were being sent there for was actually what the issue was. I’m sure a lot of cases where, you know, something like a cat up a tree is the call and when police show up, it’s a completely different situation unfolding. Or the situation itself can evolve from when the call comes in to when people arrive. And I’m just,I’m very, very cautious about sending unarmed people to respond to crisis in general, because it’s better to have a gun and not need it than need a gun and not have it.
MB: And that caution is the main motivator for you to say the the metrics of success should be that. At least it sounds like the metrics of success should be that none of these online responders are harmed.
ZW: One of the metrics of failure of the system I imagined would be someone getting hurt, as far as success, you know. What do these diversions from traditional law enforcement to an unarmed responder, what, what is the actual result? What influence can those people have, at the end of the day?
PB: Well, for one, I’m very excited that it’s finally come to fruition, it was a big ask from the Black and Brown community, because of executive order 203. So this is really exciting for me. Kathy Zoner is now the consultant that will be working with them. And I have very high respect for her, and I’m sure she’ll do an awesome job. I think having someone come at a time of crisis, who you can relate with, who you feel safe with, is very important in a time of heightened feelings. So I’m looking forward to it. I have great hopes and the success, the way that we will measure it is seeing, get some feedback from community on how this has made them feel safer. And how has it changed, right? To see community and IPD working together to make a safer community, so that’s important for me.
MB: So it sounds like that, at least that your metric would almost be more sort of a community feeling thing versus a statistic or something like that?
PB: Yes. Surveys and, and conversations. So at, at some point, say within the next year, after we can make sure that conversations I had with community members and IPD to let us know what the success has been for both of them.
MB: We will start with Phoebe for this one. In May. City HR director Shelley Michelle Nunn said that the city should have, I believe a list of candidates in 120 days for the police chief search. We’re now nearing six months since that statement. So about 180 days without any public list of candidates despite nearly $200,000 in salary and a signing bonus package. Why doesn’t the city have a police chief yet?
[Editor’s note: Since this conversation took place, the city has announced two finalists for the chief of police position]
PB: Because we are now interviewing. We are on our way. And we’re in the process. And so it’s been important for us to find the best fit for this position. So we’re in the process of it. It’s not going to be 180 days, soon.
ZW: I think this speaks to the lack of transparency in City Hall. This is just one issue. But there were many issues. There is just not a lot of public disclosure of information that you would expect there to be under normal circumstances. And why would a police chief candidate want to work in Ithaca given what happened to Acting Chief Joly and him being raked over the coals accused of racism by sitting members of Council? I just think that you know, this is not the most inviting environment for a law enforcement person to come and potentially uproot their life move to Ithaca, and take this job when there is, you know, the sword of Damocles dangling over their head at all points. And also the fact that there are individuals who are hostile to even the very concept of law enforcement who are sitting on Council who have spoken about wanting to defund the department. So if you are going to come and be an officer in Ithaca, why would you do that if there’s the potential for the entire department to not exist in the sense that it does now?
So I think that’s one of the main reasons why there might be some reluctance on behalf of people who are applying for the job, why there hasn’t been public disclosure of the list of candidates, I think that you’ve put on that put that on the list of a lot of things that have not been publicly disclosed by City Hall, to the citizens.
PB: Is there any way that I can respond to that? Because I think it’s really damaging to have that message go out. And that is why we don’t have people wanting to come here. And actually—
MB: We’ll have to hold on that. And we can —
PB: Yeah. But if I can’t respond, that’s fine.
CC: At this point, we pause the recording for a brief discussion amongst ourselves. When we invited the candidates, we described a format that didn’t allow for rebuttal, but would allow them two minutes at the end to make whatever remarks they want. As you heard, Ms. Brown said, she’s fine with not having time to respond to Mr. Wynn’s comments. And so we moved on to the next question.
MB: What is your opinion of local government officials spending time talking about or weighing in on international issues, as we saw at the Tompkins County legislature, with the Israeli-Hamas flag debate? And I believe, Zach, we’ll start with you on that one.
ZW: I think it’s a complete waste of the public’s time, the body of the legislature or the Common Council, there are many major crises, crises playing out right now in the community, and to distract, you know, other legislature or the council with international issues, which, whatever the conclusion of the statement from either body, it’s not really going to make much of a difference.
Meanwhile, there are people who are dying right here in the community, whether that be from being shot, from overdoses, that that are not being given the same level of urgency, as an ancient blood feud that is transpiring thousands and thousands of miles away. I do understand that, you know, American tax money probably shouldn’t be going to fund either side of this conflict. And I totally sympathize with, you know, the desire to be heard, and, and to address what is clearly potentially World War Three and that really would affect everyone here if that happens. At the same time, I would like to see the same type of focus that is given to these you know, hot-button issues of the day, as to that is not given to everyday problems that are affecting people here.
PB: Right now, I really just feel like, you know, right now announcing, honoring or asking for peace would come from me with peace for everyone. I don’t think that I feel that my only place is to worry about what’s just happening here. I do worry about international. However, I don’t want to get into the debate, because I want peace for everyone, alright. So I don’t know how to answer, to be honest. Is it appropriate or is it not? I know for me, I don’t want to do nothing but ask and wish for peace around the world. Right? I don’t know if I answered your question. But that’s where my heart is. I can’t really give you a “Is it right, is it wrong?” answer from me. I can only speak that all I want is peace.
MB: So the unsanctioned homeless encampment plan passed this summer. It includes certain elements of the Ithaca designated encampment sites plan from last year, but it’s a far cry from that proposal. What is the most important thing you think was left out of the plan in its final form? And what else should the city do to address the homelessness issue locally and by extension, the jungle? And I believe we’ll start with Phoebe on this one. Okay.
PB: I give kudos to everyone who’s been working on the encampment plans. And I think we’re farther along than people know. And I want to see it happen. Every day, and in the position that I hold outside of counsel, I have seen in the last week, at least 15 people in need of shelter, right? So I think the encampment [policy] is important.
However, I do think we should be thinking deeper on something that people can have immediately. I had people call me this weekend, one disabled family, and they had nowhere to stay. They had nowhere to stay. They’ve been sanctioned from the shelter, different things like this. So you know, me and some others got together to make sure that they had a place to stay this weekend. So my vision is to see another shelter. But that’s not the city. That’s not our responsibility, is what I’m hearing. But I just want to see something more stable because our homeless population has risen. So we need to find something stable.
ZW: I think the number one issue that was left out of it was the enforcement of camping on city property that is not in the Green Zone, there really is nothing preventing anyone from camping on city property, city-wide, or in the space behind Agway, Warehouse Carpet Outlet, that is railroad property that is, you know, one of the most hot zones as far as crime, overdoses, violence, human trafficking. So the the lack of a policy that that actually gives the city some sort of clear guidance on how to manage these encampments outside of the Green Zone, I think, is the biggest piece of of the encampment plan that was was left out.
And just as far as there’s no water in the Green Zone, I’ve been in there a few times I’ve walked through it, there is a camp, flying a Confederate flag, covered in swastikas with dozens, if not a 100 stolen bicycles. So it’s not really a homeless issue, It’s a drug issue. And it’s a crime issue. And couching this all as, you know, homeless people just trying to put a roof over their head or find a place to sleep is not really an accurate description of the problem. So I think that it’s just a bad plan, in general, that’s gonna go off the rails immediately after it is implemented.
CC: Next, each candidate was given two minutes for closing remarks. Zach Winn spoke first then Phoebe Brown.
ZW: I’m deeply concerned about what I what I believe to be a seizure of power by members of the Solidarity Slate of which Phoebe Brown is a member. There has been open talk about you know, this is a takeover of Common Council. And the fact that Solidarity Slate has committed to not only voting as a bloc, but are seemingly all opposed to just the idea of law enforcement in general, I think is a major issue. The rhetoric coming out of members of the Solidarity Slate, including Jorge DeFendini and Miss Brown, regarding wanting to redirect funding from the Ithaca Police Department is tremendously damaging to the morale of the remaining officers and makes it a less attractive place for law enforcement personnel to come and do their job. Luckily, two officers have elected to laterally transfer into the department. So that’s the first two officers willing to join this department in several years. And the the idea that police are the protectors of capital, the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) rhetoric of, you know, police protect property and not people, that is not constructive dialogue coming from members of council.
And to have the the rhetoric go from the, you know, classrooms of Cornell into Common Council chambers, I think is a very bad turn. And I am opposed to the seizure of power and the commitment that has been made to enact socialist policies, whether that be from Miss Sims, who, you know, is a prominent member of the DSA to you know, Genevieve Rand who is, I believe, the architect of this takeover, and I have to give them credit for going in and making it happen and getting the bag, as they put it, because consequences for this community I think are going to be massive.
PB: I’d like to first thank this community for believing in me, for giving me an opportunity to do what I believe is my calling. I don’t have time to defend the Solidarity Slate, our work proves itself. We are here for the people, right? We are who you’ve been waiting for. It’s funny that somebody who could take the Ithacan-American flag [a Black Lives Matter flag] and burn it can have such harsh things to say about the Solidarity Slate.
I need to be very clear about my stance about police. I am someone who came together to start a community Meet The Chief monthly meetings with the chief. Also, my problem is not with IPD. My problem was with the behavior of some policing throughout New York State, throughout America. I’ve never, I don’t know where the defund the police comes from, because we can’t at this present moment. However, what I do know is there are other people in this community, grassroot organizations that keep us safe. And yes, we need police, but they usually get there after the crime is committed. How is that preventing crime? And these other organizations do that.
I am so proud to be a part of the Solidarity Slate. I’m not slinging mud at anybody. What I say is my place is to be here for the people of Ithaca, to make sure that they are not only surviving but they’re thriving. I do not have this dim picture of Ithaca. We are doing an amazing job.
CC: Thank you both.
PB, ZW: Thank you.