October 28, 2015

Local Activist Anna Kelles to Draw on Community Organizing Past if Elected to Legislature

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Local Ithaca resident and activist Anna Kelles is running as an independent candidate to represent the second district in the Tompkins County Legislature. The Fall Creek district includes parts of North Campus and lower Collegetown and is home to many students and affiliates of the University.


Anna Kelles

Kelles will run against Democratic candidate Nate Shinagawa ’05, who resigned from his position representing the fourth district in the Tompkins County Legislature so he could run to represent the second district.

According to Kelles, it is important to create policies which encourage landowners to update their properties, as it would create affordable and livable conditions for students and residents of Ithaca.

“Having someone in office that understands that people need a home and people need a certain quality of life, [and] that anytime I have an opportunity to update policies to do that I always will,” Kelles said. “Because there is no housing left in Collegetown, people are buying up places and converting them to rentals in areas like Fall Creek, from people who can no longer afford their homes.”

In addition, Ithaca faces tax pressure due to Cornell’s status as a land grant university, which pays no taxes on its property. This can create an “us versus them attitude,” according to Kelles.  However, Kelles said she has had experience as a part of both communities.

“I work up at Cornell, I’m a lecturer up at Cornell … but I grew up here,” Kelles said. “I would automatically know from visceral experience what is the student experience, and what is the experience of the residents uptown who have lived here a really long time, and would try to create a compromise.”

According to Kelles, due to the nature of the committee system of the Tompkins County Legislature, it is important for voters to understand the ideology a candidate would use in their decision making and policy plans, which may or may not be relevant to committees they have a chance to serve on.

“As a legislator if there is one single thing I promise to do, it is to use the background I have as a community organizer for five years,” Kelles said. “Buy-in and community engagement is critical, I think, to create decisions and solutions that people feel empowered by, rather than something that [they feel has] happened to them.”

According to Kelles, few students are invested in local elections, and a reason why people are not engaged is because those in office do not communicate and share, something Kelles claims she would do differently.

“We don’t engage, we don’t talk, we don’t cross boundaries … and what we have now is people don’t vote,” Kelles said.

According to Kelles, the diversity and vibrancy of the Cornell community is at stake in this election.

“To come off the hill and not have anything here that you can learn from, to not have organizations, quality of life, diversity, and a vibrancy of community to even care about — to have that kind of crumble from the inside out — is really sad,” Kelles said.

Kells said a critical moment that made her decide to run in the election, was the County Legislature’s rejection of a proposal for the Old Tompkins County Library. Kelles said she organized over 300 citizens to come and speak at legislative meetings in support of the proposal, but the proposal was ultimately rejected.

“It’s not that I wasn’t willing to accept that they as our representatives had made a decision, that wasn’t the issue. The issue, and it’s important to make the distinction, is that I saw a lack of representation,” Kelles said. “I saw a lack of responsiveness, I saw a lack of listening.”

The local government and the decisions it makes impact Cornell students in significant ways, according to Millicent Kastenbaum ’16, chair of the Student Assembly’s City and Local Affairs Committee.

“Although as individuals we are only here for four years, students are a class of people in this community, a class that should respect and engage with its local government, and whose interest should also be taken into account,” Kastenbaum said.

While Austin McLaughlin ’18, a member of the City and Local Affairs Committee, declined to support either candidate, he said he believes Kelles has “shown her commitment as a community member and active citizen through her mobilization efforts for both the library redevelopment and her substantiality initiative, Green Plus.”