October 22, 2003

City Council Approves C.U. Donation to City

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Over the weekend, as trustees reviewed a variety of economic measures that will affect Cornell in coming years, they approved a measure of understanding between Cornell and the City of Ithaca that will increase the amount of money the University voluntarily contributes annually to the city.

Specifically, the memorandum will allow $1 million originally allocated for the year 2007 to be paid in 2004, and will also add $475,000 that will be paid in installments over the next three years.

Last night, amidst much discussion and some disagreement, the measure was passed by a nine to one vote by the Ithaca Common Council.

President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 attended the meeting for the first thirty minutes, but then had to leave because of prior commitments. Lehman thanked Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 for appearing before the Cornell Board of Trustees on Saturday.

Lehman stressed the importance of the relationship between Cornell and the city. “The relationship between the town and gown is very important to the long term well being of both our University and our city,” Lehman said.

Lehman described his experience of being briefed on the relationship between the University and city by officials when he accepted the position of president.

“I learned that the history has been uneven,” Lehman said.

According to Lehman, the memorandum is “good for the city, and it’s therefore good for Cornell.” He stressed the importance of an “overall relationship of partnership and mutual support” between the University and the city.

Lehman also addressed paragraph three of the memorandum, which allows Cornell, in the event that the city has acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” to withdraw all funding.

In the previous monetary agreement between the University and City of Ithaca — which lasted from 1995 and would continue until 2007 had the new measure not been passed — the University could withdraw funds if officials felt it was being treated unfairly, but they had to give six months notice before doing so.

In response to concerns about this paragraph, Lehman said, “I don’t think it will ever be invoked.” He also stressed the fact that the contribution was a voluntary contract, and that the University would “respect every legal judgment [of the City] if the city is acting in a legal way.”

Several Council members voiced concerns over the University’s possible ability to withdraw funds on the basis of a city ruling. Alderman Dan Cogan (D-5th Ward) cited the recent lawsuit between the University and City Planning Board over the West Campus Residential Initiative’s plan to build a parking lot below Stewart Avenue as a possible situation in which the University could withdraw grant money as a statement of displeasure about the outcome of the Planning Board’s decision.

Lehman said that it was “hard to speak to that” as the matter was under litigation.

After Lehman left the meeting, discussion started again on the topic.

Several council members expressed disappointment over the fact that the President was not available to answer more questions.

Alderwoman Susan Blumenthal ’78 (D-3rd Ward) said that Lehman’s absence set the discussion off “to our disadvantage and does not create the kind of climate the president spoke of.”

Cohen disagreed, saying that Lehman’s attendance at the beginning of the meeting “shows a high degree of character on his part and a clear sense of mission.”

Alderwoman J. Diann Sams (D-2nd Ward) said that due to the stipulations of the memorandum, specifically the third paragraph, “for me, its hard to understand if this is really a goodwill gesture.”

Several Council members said that they had received phone calls and e-mails from constituents who were concerned about the memorandum. According to Cogan, “I think people are having an emotional response to this.”

Blumenthal expressed her frustration at the Council not being included in discussions between the University and Cohen.

“This would have been a lot better if the council had been meeting with the mayor,” she said.

City lawyer Norma Schwab said that she could find nothing legally wrong with the stipulations of the memorandum. “From a legal perspective, I don’t find this language troubling or extreme.”

According to Schwab, the “bottom line is that [Cornell doesn’t] have any obligation to make this voluntary contribution.”

Cohen urged the council to take action quickly. Some council members, however, expressed concern over being told to make a decision when the University Trustees had already voted. According to Alderwoman Paulette Manos (D-1st Ward), agreeing to the memorandum would be making the statement that “this is the way the city does business … [Cornell] came to us with an ultimatum and we have to take it.”

Several members expressed their support for the memorandum and for the gesture that the University made in donating money to the city.

After the council as a whole voted in favor of the memorandum despite some disagreements, Cohen apologized to the council for not involving them in the memorandum decision-making process. “I made the decision that put you in that bad position,” he said.

Archived article by Kate Cooper