Cameron Pollack/Sun File Photo

Voting booths at the polling place at Alice Cook House on Nov. 7, 2017.

November 2, 2022

Upcoming Referendums May Change City Government Structure, Support Green Initiatives

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On Election Day next Tuesday, Nov. 8, among elections for New York Governor, Attorney General and Mayor of Ithaca, Ithaca voters will find two referendums on their ballots — one to create a city manager position and another state-wide referendum on the Environmental Bond Act.

The city manager referendum proposes to create a new position in Ithaca, which has generated some conversation among local politicians. If the referendum is approved, Ithaca’s Common Council would appoint and supervise a city manager, who would take office in 2024.

Acting Mayor Laura Lewis strongly supports the creation of the city manager role. She believes the shift in government structure will allow for more transparency between elected officials and voters.

“In the organization of city government that we are proposing through this referendum, the mayor would have a full vote on Common Council,” Lewis said. “That increases the transparency and the accountability for the public, with the mayor not only proposing policy, but then having to vote on such matters as come before Common Council.”

Lewis added that this position would streamline city government processes.

“A city manager would be hired for management experience and qualifications, and would be hired by and report to the Common Council rather than to one individual, being the mayor,” Lewis said. “It has greater sustainability, accountability and transparency.”

Ithaca’s city manager would work closely with the Common Council, providing management experience and building the budget. Coordinating with department heads, the city manager would also facilitate the needs of various departments across Ithaca’s government.

Kenneth Mix, the acting city manager of Watertown, NY, has similar responsibilities within the Watertown city government.

“I have oversight of all the departments, and all department heads report to me,” Mix said. “Since we’ve got such a variety of departments, each day could be completely different from the last day.”

Watertown appointed its first city manager in 1920, and Mix has worked in the city manager’s office for over 30 years. Mix thinks that the city manager government structure benefits smaller communities like Watertown. Many other nearby cities, including Auburn and Corning, have adopted a similar style of government.

However, some local politicians are skeptical of Ithaca’s need for a city manager. Katie Sims ’20, an independent candidate for mayor, explained why she does not support the city manager referendum.

“To say that drafting the budget is an administrative task and not a political one I think is misleading,” Sims said. “I think voters should very carefully consider whether they want to give up their choice of who drafts the budget.”

Because the city manager is an appointed role rather than an elected one, Sims worries that decisions made by the city manager would not best reflect the interests of voters. Sims makes a similar case for police reform and sidewalk snow removal, decisions that she believes are better left to the public. Ultimately, Sims is glad that the city manager proposal has been left to the public vote and is excited to see the results.

The other referendum on the ballot is the Environmental Bond Act, which would invest $4.2 billion of state bonds in environmental protection, natural restoration, resiliency and clean energy projects across New York state. The Environmental Bond Act also requires that 35 to 45 percent of all funds go towards projects in disadvantaged communities.

Sims, an advocate for climate justice, explained why she will be voting ‘yes’ on the Environmental Bond Act.

“Clean water, clean air, good green jobs, mitigating climate change, investing in climate adaptation — these are all really, really key public goods, and it makes sense to me to invest really strongly in them,” Sims said.

Sims also mentioned that with Ithaca’s increasing flood risk and recent Green New Deal, state-level funding would allow Ithaca to complete more expensive projects to achieve the sustainability goals of the city.

“Now is really the time to make these investments,” Sims said. “I don’t think that it makes sense to take on an austerity stance now when we have the opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change now, and we have the chance to adapt to climate change disasters before they happen.”

Sofia Rubinson ’24 contributed reporting.