May 2, 2003

Lerner Looks to Become Ithaca's New Mayor

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The first part of a series profiling candidates for the Ithaca mayoral race taking place this fall.

Two weeks ago, Eric Lerner Ph.D. ’75 announced that he was running for the position of Mayor of Ithaca.

Lerner was the first candidate to make his announcement. Carolyn Peterson (D-4th Ward) has also announced her intent to run. Paulette Manos (D-1st Ward) and Lt. John Beau Saul of the Ithaca Police Department are expected to announce their plans to run in the Democratic Primary on Sept. 9. Both Lerner and Peterson are also seeking the endorsement of the Tompkins County Green Party.

“I believe my vision for Ithaca, as well as my experience with local government and community organizations, qualify me in a unique way for this daunting job,” Lerner said in a press release.

“I’ve worked with Eric for seven years on the county board, where he took over the budget committee and radically reorganized how the county plans its budget,” said Prof. Barbara Mink grad ’85, Lerner’s campaign committee chair.

“He got a new recycling center in the city of Ithaca which has since become a model for the country and he’s very good at working with people to come to some decision on whatever issue they are facing. He’s not an ideologue, he’s a pragmatic progressive,” she said.

Lerner, born in Newark, N.J. in 1948, received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy with honors from the University of Michigan. He has been a citizen of Ithaca since 1970, when he attended Cornell as a graduate student of philosophy. After he received his Ph.D., he was a philosophy instructor at several local universities, including Cornell and the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland until 1979.

For the following nine years, he worked with two community organizations. He was a coordinator at the Helpline of Seneca County for three years and for six years, he was executive director of Offender Aid & Restoration (OAR). OAR is a United Way member agency that deals with the rights of prisoners with such programs as bail fund programs, transition services and immediate assistance services.

Following that experience, Lerner became an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Ithaca College, where he taught Applied Ethics. In 1990, he was elected to the Tompkins County Board of Representatives and was reelected in 1994. While on the board, he served as chair of the Solid Waste & Resource Management Committee and the Budget & Fiscal Policy Committee.

Lerner resigned halfway through his second term on the board to become an extension associate at Cornell Community and Rural Development Institute (CARDI).

“CARDI was, and possibly still is, an interdepartmental and inter-college program based in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but tied in with the College of Industrial and Labor Relations, the College of Art, Architecture and Planning, the College of Human Ecology and even the College of Arts and Sciences,” Lerner said. “CARDI serves as a network point for people in the University involved with community and rural development.”

Lerner noted one of the people who he worked closely with at CARDI — the late Prof. David Allee, applied economics management. “He was a friend,” Lerner said. “His death was shocking and upsetting.”

Lerner remained at CARDI until 2000. He is currently a community and organizational development consultant and trainer. A resident of Plane St., Lerner opposed the recent reopening of the Plane St. bridge, but he was not involved in suing the city to halt its opening.

“Generally [consulting] means working with not-for-profit organizations, but sometimes I’ve worked with the federal government or for-profit organizations,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve been brought in to facilitate a difficult decision and my job is to help to get people to understand where the other party is coming from. I think that that’s one of the skills that I think I can bring in as mayor.”

Learner has made community building a major priority in his campaign. “At the very least, I think [community building is] something that has been extraordinarily controversial in recent years,” Lerner said. “I think we need more people participating in the decision making process, particularly on the development issues that people are very concerned with.”

Lerner has also expressed strong concern about the state of the economy.

“There’s pretty good reason to think that what we’re heading into is hard times for City Hall [in] Ithaca for the foreseeable future. I think it means being very cautious where we put city spending. There’s already been tremendous pressure to increase property taxes,” he said.

Lerner expressed his hope that another double digit property tax increase would not be needed, but emphasized that he anticipated many difficult decisions for the immediate future. He attributed much of this trouble to “buck-passing” from Washington, D.C. and Albany.

“There’s been a consistent trend over 35 years now of the federal government taking programs that have been federally funded and then passing the cost to the states. And then what the state of New York does is pass the responsibility on to the local government,” Lerner said.

He added, “The beneficiaries of the shifting of the tax burden are the big contributors to national political campaigns and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Lerner was also critical of the Bush administration.

“Like so many others, I’m deeply concerned about the Bush Administration’s wars on terrorism, Iraq and the Bill of Rights,” he wrote in a press release. “These will continue to have consequences for Ithacans and for City Hall. As mayor I believe it’s essential to ensure that Ithaca continues to be a place where it is safe to speak one’s mind on the war, or to have a Muslim name.”

Many of Lerner’s supporters have expressed optimism in his ability to solve the problems that await the next mayor of Ithaca.

“I have always been very impressed with his ability to think clearly about issues, to focus on solutions, to keep in mind what the underlying goals and values that are involved with the issue are and to come up with real, practical solutions,” said Tompkins County legislature chair Tim Joseph ’73 (D-Town of Ithaca).

Archived article by David Hillis