ITHACA, N.Y.—About half of Ithaca’s Common Council posed their questions Monday to the second of two finalists for the city’s new City Manager role, Deborah Mohlenhoff. Mohlenhoff is Ithaca’s current chief of staff and a former longtime councilmember. 

Along with Washington, D.C. native and city government administrator Delancia Browning, Mohlenhoff is one of two finalists selected to be Ithaca’s first city manager.

Whoever is selected will, starting on Jan. 1, inherit many of the administrative and managerial duties and issues that presently fall under the purview of the mayor. That includes oversight over the city’s 12 departments, many of which still have several vacant positions. Future mayors will have a role that places a much greater emphasis on the legislative process. Mayors will also retain the more ceremonial aspects of the job.

Nearly half of the Common Council — Cynthia Brock, George McGonigal, Ducson Nguyen, Jorge DeFendini and Donna Flemming — were absent or late for Mohlenhoff’s interview, though many of the city’s department heads turned out. That’s in contrast with Browning’s interview, which was attended by the full council.

Alongside outgoing City Attorney Ari Levine, Mohlenhoff played a major part in the development of the role for which she’s now a top contender. 

Mohlenhoff has served as the chief of staff for about a year now. Her current role will become obsolete after the new City Manager is sworn in. Mohlenhoff has also served on the Common Council for 12 years and was appointed the designated Acting Mayor in 2014.

“I really loved government, but as you heard me say before, I liked the ‘behind the scenes’ of government more than the front-facing public arm of government,” Mohlenhoff said. 

Mohlenhoff also worked as an administrator at both Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

“In all of the roles that I’ve had previously that kind of aggregate the different experiences that I’m bringing to the table, the one role I haven’t been in yet is that decision-maker role, that final decision maker role, and I’m looking forward to that,” Mohlenhoff said.

Mohlenhoff said the chief of staff and city manager roles will draw on many of the same skills, but added there would need to be a “paradigm shift” for the transition and first hundred days to go smoothly. 

“A lot of conversation around this has been, ‘we’re building the plane while we’re flying it’ […] or whatever we want to use,” Mohlenhoff said. “I’m thinking that my strategy will be ‘We need to ground the plane and do some maintenance work a little bit before before we can just whoosh and start flying.’”

Mohlenhoff said she wants to meet and discuss the role and future of the city with the mayor and department heads during her first hundred days. 

Mohlenhoff also addressed the current state of Ithaca’s landmark police reform effort, Reimagining Public Safety, acknowledging frustrations from some community members who feel the effort has been delayed or watered down

“I’d rather kind of take action on some things instead of ‘committee’ it to death, or ‘Ithaca’ it to death, you know, like we do,” Mohlenhoff said. 

Mohlenhoff also said she would want to prioritize hiring a permanent chief of police. The role has been vacant since 2021. Two finalists met with community members earlier this month.

“We need a police chief that will be really lock-step with the [Reimagining Public Safety] plan that we put forward,” Mohlenhoff said. “And we need to do a better job of coordinating and communicating with the [Community Justice Center] and [its chair, Monalita Smiley].”

Mohlenhoff said she hopes to have as many vacant roles across the city filled before Jan. 1, when the city “flips the switch” from a mayor-led city to one led by a city manager. 

The search committee is set to announce a final candidate recommendation to the Common Council at its Dec. 6 meeting.

Megan Zerez is a general assignment reporter at the Ithaca Voice. Reach her via email or social media @meganzerez