April 30, 2001

Cohen Returns from Fourth Visit to Ithaca's Sister City

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Halfway across the world in the Ukraine stands a city — a city to which both Cornellians and Ithacans alike would normally remain unaware — but within the last two years Komsomolsk has been transformed from an unknown Eastern European mining town into Ithaca’s first sister city .

Mayor Alan J. Cohen ’81 and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) have pioneered a “visioning process” to transcend this “passive,” post-communist community into an active citizen participation society.

In 1998, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation was contracted by the United States Agency for International Development to bring positive influences and change from sister cities of America to less developed Ukrainian ones.

“Countries that receive aid do not receive one big fat check from America. Foreign aid is delivered to countries in many different ways,” Cohen said. “Much of the aid is through contractors who deliver specific services that have been identified as needs for that particular country, by that diplomatic missions that exist in each of those countries.”

The U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s call for cities to become involved in a community partnership program with an Ukrainian city was answered by TC3, who applied on behalf of Ithaca. Komsomolsk was chosen for Ithaca because of similar city characteristics.

“Both Ithaca and Komsomolsk are dominated by one main employer, both are located on bodies of water, and both are fairly small cities surrounded with an agriculture region,” Cohen said.

The mayor has ventured across the Atlantic four times since the partnership began in 1999. Each trip was a different step towards helping Komsomolsk evolve into a more progressive city, with focuses on local government, citizen participation, economic development, communal services (public works), budgeting and transportation.

“The way this partnership program was conceived there was a lot of latitude given to partnership cities to develop their own programs. The American partnership cities were pretty much told to go over there, do an assessment, determine what their needs are and you figure out what you think is the best way to address them,” Cohen said. “We chose to focus mainly on citizen participation, economic development and a little with communal services as well.”

In the spring of 1999 Cohen, accompanied by Beth Fuller of TC3 and Mike Stamm, president of economic department of Tompkins County Area Development, flew to Komsomolsk for an assessment trip. This first trip was to determine what were Komsomolsk’s main problems, obstacles and strengths for the city famous for having the largest open mine pit in Europe.

The city was built in 1960 specifically to support that mine, at a time when the Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Over 12,000 people — in a city of 54,000 — work in the mine.

“On the first trip we met elected officials, took tours, had extensive meetings and began the long processes of analyzing the Komsomolsk community, ” Stamm said. “We tried to find strategies to teach the citizens to speak openly, think creatively, share their views and to ultimately convince them that their communism days were over and public participation was actually supported.”

The first trip to the sister city gave Cohen enough information to move forward and formalize his plan for Komsomolsk, a plan which could be “replicable” in any city. Last summer, Cohen embarked on his second trip with a goal of finding out exactly which problems plagued citizens, what they desired in their communities and how they felt the government should go about dealing with those issues. He went into communities and held forums to seek citizen input.

While the mayor worked on building citizen participation and let the “visioning process” take shape, two other Ithacans from TC3 worked on education training projects.

The idea for the visioning process stemmed from past experiences Cohen had during the assessment trip.

“Based on that and Ukrainian culture in general — not just that city in particular — I came up with the idea for the visioning process as a way to get people thinking about the idea of citizen participation, creating a process that is fairly simple that would yield data that would be of value to the community,” Cohen said.

One major difference between the American government and Ukranian government is tthe focus on a centralized government, rather than on each city’s local government branches. In addition, while Americans have rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, Ukrainians must adhere to specific written laws.

“In the U.S., what is not expressly forbidden is otherwise allowed; because of this, we have latitude on a local level to be creative and address our problems and create solutions. In Ukraine it is the opposite, what is not expressly allowed is otherwise forbidden,” Cohen said. “They have one national law for every single city. Each city is set up the same way regardless of the size, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the location, all cities are set up the same way. It doesn’t give local governments the latitude to address their local problems creatively, to address the problems they have specific to their area.”

Cohen acted as a facilitator to the community of Komsomolsk to determine an image for its future through active citizen participation in the visioning process — to further get its citizens excited about, committed to and remained involved in local government.

This vision is a change for many Ukrainians who find themselves trapped in the mindset of their communism upbringing.

“Citizen participation is a brand new idea for them. The thought of ordinary citizens contributing to public dialogue and addressing public problems runs contrary to what they’re used to,” Cohen said.

The visioning process was presented to the Ukrainian government officials and citizens to generate feedback from both sides.

“There was sort of a hidden agenda in there, which was to engage citizens in that process and get them thinking, ‘I enjoy this, I see value to what I’m doing and I want to do more of it,'” Cohen said. “[Additionally] getting government officials to say, ‘there is value to these people participating, they are bringing new ideas to the table, they are expanding our resource base beyond what we already have and that it is important to have citizens involved.'”

“We accomplished both agendas,” he added.

In the fall, Cohen went over to Komsomolsk to train both government officials and private citizens. On this trip, Ithaca officials worked with 12 strategic planning subgroups to focus on the issues covered through the visioning process.

“Currently a vision is being developed, a whole strategic plan for the city of Komsomolsk is being worked on. They have entitled their plan ‘Komsomolsk — City of Dreams,'” Cohen said.

These subgroups are looking at health issues, education issues and youth issues, among other questions. Cohen expressed his hope and belief that these subgroups would continue with their participation.

On his most recent trip, the Mayor moved past Komsomolsk, working with the mayors of 18 Ukrainian cities, sharing information and facilitating communication between these Eastern European city leaders.

“Cohen was so good at running public participation meetings, making citizens feel that their opinions were valued and welcomed; I guess just as he does here in Ithaca, ” Stamm said.

Archived article by Julia Macdonald