In a Monday night virtual forum three Democratic primary candidates for the Ithaca Common Council discussed issues including affordable housing, sustainability and the reimagining public safety plan. While the candidates agreed on most priorities, some of their plans for implementation differed.
The forum, hosted by the City of Ithaca Democratic Committee and the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, featured the primary candidates for the 1st and 5th ward representatives. Participants included Robert Cantelmo and Marty Hiller, who are both seeking the Democratic nomination for the Fifth Ward Seat on the Ithaca Common Council, and Cynthia Brock, who has the endorsement of the First Ward Democratic Committee and is running for re-election against candidates Yasmin Rashid and Shaniya Foster — both of whom did not attend the forum.
All the candidates emphasized their connection to the Ithaca community, relevant professional experience and readiness to listen to constituents.
A key priority for all of the candidates was the successful execution of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety Plan, which outlined recommendations intended to build trust between residents and local law enforcement through measures including sending unarmed responders in response to calls that do not have the risk of violence.
Hiller expressed satisfaction with the plan’s emphasis on improving mental health incident responses and providing crisis care. However, she stated that building bridges between people with different views on the plan will be important for implementation, as will changing the culture of the future Community Solutions and Public Safety Department, currently the Ithaca Police Department.
“There’s going to be a really strong need for retraining and culture shift within the department, and I think that’s a challenge that we need to overcome,” Hiller said. “Right now, the environment is very polarized.”
Brock thinks that city-county partnerships will be important for successful execution, and she thinks the public polarization is exaggerated.
“When I speak to constituents, when I speak to officers, when I speak to community leaders, I hear a willingness and a desire to come together and build on the relationships that are there, to overcome any differences of experience and better understand each other,” Brock said.
Cantelmo, who is chairperson of the Public Safety and Information Commission, said that implementing the plan may pose as much of a challenge, if not more, than creating it, and should include continued dialogue with the public.
“[The] Council should use its power to sustain dialogue around these reforms, direct resources towards the most progressive policies, monitor and evaluate that progress and ensure we have an adaptive approach to implementation,” Cantelmo said.
Beyond implementing the public safety program, all of the candidates prioritized increasing access to affordable childcare in light of pandemic-based challenges. They advocated for collaboration with the county and state governments.
When asked about increasing affordable housing downtown, Brock emphasized the need for denser housing near public services and activities, with a range of housing for all income levels and both renters and owners. Brock thinks that these housing plans need to be made in the context of developing a strong local economy that will help people receive a living wage.
While both Brock and Cantelmo agreed that mixed income housing is one of the possible solutions for the Ithaca housing crisis, Cantelmo also emphasized the need for more immediate strategies.
“There are people living in precarious situations now, and for them to view the housing solution as something that comes on line down the road is not ultimately very fair,” Cantelmo said. “It’s not fitting for us as a city that markets itself as one as progressive as we are.”
The candidates differed in their response to the proposal of a manager for the city of Ithaca’s government. Brock said the idea carries some potential but leaves questions about the role of the mayor. Hiller deferred to the judgement of the current mayor and council while Cantelmo expressed more support but thinks that the proposal should be voted on in a referendum if it progresses.
As the candidates discussed a number of proposals to improve street safety and maintenance. Brock called for a new system in which neighborhoods could apply to the city for traffic-calming measures and also that the city should hire more street maintenance crews.
Both Hiller and Cantelmo advocated for regular street and sidewalk maintenance, which would increase safety and accessibility for non-car transportation. Hiller called for Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit to expand bus routes into rural areas, while Cantelmo wants to see more overall investment in TCAT as part of a general plan to help people have convenient transportation while reducing emissions.
“We’re trying to move toward a city that’s less car dependent, and I think we need to start prioritizing non-car transit options,” Hiller said. She and Cantelmo both emphasized supporting Ithaca cyclists through strategies including safer, more convenient bicycle routes.
The candidates also discussed improving the city of Ithaca’s environmental impact, including reducing lead pollution and finding the best ways to manage food waste.
Cantelmo highlighted the importance of reducing individual plastic waste, but he also emphasized the need for the state government to hold corporations accountable for their role in climate change.
Tompkins County does not have its own landfill, which makes reducing waste especially important, according to Brock. She said that before the pandemic, the city had met with Cornell and other institutions to consider taking food waste from these organizations to feed through a digester and turn into electricity. Now that the pandemic is over, Brock wants to revisit this idea.
New York State Primary elections will be held on June 22, while early voting starts on June 12.