February 18, 2013

Cornell Graduate Student Appointed To Ithaca’s Board of Public Works

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Mitch Paine grad was appointed this month to serve as the only student on the City of Ithaca’s Board of Public Works, the city body responsible for the upkeep of public buildings and property.

Paine, a graduate student in Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning, will attend his second board committee meeting this week.

“Mayor [Svante] Myrick [’09] called me one morning and asked if I would apply to serve on the board, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I know it’s a very influential board in the city, and it’s a great opportunity,” Paine said.

Paine is filling in for former commissioner Bill Goldsmith, who is on sabbatical for six months. He was appointed by the Mayor and approved by the Common Council.

As the only student on the board, Paine says he tries to bring a student perspective to the debates at meetings.

“What I vote on affects the people who are our age and stay here –– those who have grown up in Ithaca –– and it affects their taxes in the future. It’s very important to have a youthful perspective on it,” he said.

Paine added that “having a student on the board is useful because they get to say the particular issues the [board] may not have known [about] in [Collegetown].”

In addition to his studies in city and regional planning, Paine has a background in politics and city planning that originated in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., where he once worked for the city’s mayor.

Paine also has prior experience in City of Ithaca politics, having previously worked on Myrick’s campaign and served as a co-chair of the city’s Rental Housing Advisory Commision, which seeks to improve the quality and affordability of the city’s rental housing.

The Board of Public Works is one of the largest government committees in Ithaca.

The board, according to Paine, oversees the whole range of public facilities in the city, including public buildings and property, sewage, water, streets and parks.Paine said he had to prepare extensively for his first meeting on Feb. 11.

“The budgets are complex and the funding is complex; I had to get caught up on current projects, see what’s going on and understand what roles I could play in it,” Paine said.

Fortunately, Paine said, “the city has a pretty good archive of meeting documents –– it’s really easy to keep tabs on the city committee.”

“It’s a really transparent system, which made research easy,” he added.

Paine stressed that students, many of whom contribute to the city’s property taxes as renters, do not realize the importaance of being involved in city planning.

“We don’t pay taxes directly, but through landlords,” Paine said, saying that as a result of this system, “students don’t see themselves with a vested interest in public works.”

Paine said city planning issues can come off as uninteresting to students, even when they affect their quality of life.

He called on students to get involved in city government.

“A city this size has a lot of staff that help run the city. … There are at least a hundred positions that students are eligible for,” Paine said. “I’m [also] appalled at how few students vote. It’s the minimum we should do.”

Claudia Jenkins, vice-chair of the Board of Public Works, echoed Paine’s sentiments and emphasized the important role new members can play on the board’s committee.

“It’s always good to have young, fresh ideas; young people should participate. They’re living here for four years, or more, so why shouldn’t they participate in the board?” Jenkins said. “Older people get stuck. It’s hard to change old folks. We need more young people in these boards.”

Paine also emphasized the need for student involvement in Ithaca.

“Ithaca certainly isn’t New York City, but it’s a really great city that values its student populations and resources. It is constantly rated as a city for young people, so there are plenty of reasons for people to get involved,” he said.

Paine said that one issue he is interested in addressing during his time on the board is the way sidewalk replacements are funded.

Currently, Paine said, there are inequities in the current system of funding repairs.

He added that major public works projects are not his sole interest, and that he hopes to discuss smaller projects in his time on the board.

“I’m interested in things from the simple stop signs in my backyard to the lack of crosswalk from Maplewood Apartments to the bus stop. I’m surprised it’s been overlooked, but it’s something I’m going to fight for,” he said.

Paine said he plans to continue to work in city government after graduating in May –– whether he decides to live in Ithaca or move back home to Nebraska.

“Local government deals in mundane things, but it’s much more concrete than working for the federal government. It’s real to me,” he said.

Original Author: Kevin Milian