At the Ithaca Common Council meeting on Nov. 1, City Attorney Aaron Lavine resigned and lengthy disputes over the release of funds from the 2023 Restricted Contingency Account were held.
City Attorney Aaron (Ari) Lavine ‘01, J.D. ‘04, announced he would be stepping down from his role after nearly 12 years in the position. Born and raised in Ithaca, Lavine attended Cornell for his undergraduate and law degree. When former mayor Svante Myrick ’09 was still a mayoral candidate, he asked Lavine over lunch to consider joining him as city attorney in the new administration.
“I agreed because I saw in Svante a partner in good governance infused with responsive innovation. At that lunch, I told him I would do it and that we would re-evaluate in two years. That was my way of saying I didn’t think I’d stay a full four. And here we are, 12 years later, making me the longest-serving city attorney in Ithaca’s history,” Lavine said.
Lavine reviewed through some of his most notable achievements, including his roles as chair of the Sidewalk Improvement District Task Force and chair of the city Stormwater Task Force, as well as the statewide precedent set in the 201 Collegetown Litigation, which established that limits on public use of public streets are a matter of public discretion.
“It was a privilege to serve this great city across that first decade in office, and a duty to see it through these past two years,” Lavine said. “I am announcing my departure from city governance with deep gratitude for the opportunity to accomplish all that we did with fervent hope for the future of this exceptional city that we all love.”
Mayor Laura Lewis then opened the floor for Common Council members to share messages of gratitude to Lavine, which all 10 chose to do.
“Public service is about much more than personal reputation, in fact, the two can easily run counter to each other. Ari has never sought the spotlight, but his record of public accomplishment is real and impacts the way our city lives every day,” said Alderperson Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward). “As a city resident, I am grateful for his 12 years of service and as an alderperson I appreciated his expertise, of course, but also his patience, persistence and clear headedness.”
Before moving on to further agenda items, Mayor Lewis took the time to address the acts of violence and hate that rattled the Cornell and surrounding Ithaca community earlier in the week.
On Monday, Lewis published a public statement denouncing the threats and reirating that “attacks on people, businesses or any institution within our city will not be tolerated.” The meeting then took a moment of silence for peace across the world, before moving on.
Common Council also discussed Item 4.3, Release of Contingency Funds for Black Hands Universal, and Item 4.4, Release of Contingency Funds for Unbroken Promises Initiative, both of which sparked some controversy during the meeting.
Both resolutions were presented by Robert Cantelmo (D-5th Ward) and would release $50,000 for Black Hands Universal, Inc. and $50,000 for the Unbroken Promise Initiative from the 2023 Restricted Contingency Account, which means the money is only released if the Common Council specifically votes to do so.
Black Hands Universal is an independent, grassroots nonprofit organization focused on helping disadvantaged community members get jobs and appropriate training, mental health resources, financial coaching, cultural or educational resources and more.
Harry Smith, who represented Black Hands Universal at the meeting, came under scrutiny recently after posting on his personal TikTok account about recreationally using marijuana at 706 West Green Street, an address previously associated with Black Hands Universal.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) opposed passing the resolution to grant funding to the organization due to Smith’s behavior.
“Even if only for a matter of weeks, it demonstrates a failure to act [with the] trust and faith of the public places in city funded organizations and services,” Brock said. “I cannot in good conscience vote in support.”
Smith explained that Black Hands Universal is no longer affiliated with 706 West Green Street, and he expressed frustrations that the city is reluctant to work with the organization and support their initiatives.
“You wouldn’t have to give me the $50,000 if you guys would just work with our program and allow us to do some of the work in the city. But we’re invisible until something bad happens. We’re always invisible until something negative happens,” Smith said.
The resolution ended up passing 7-2, opposed by Brock and George McGonigal (D-1st Ward).
Unbroken Promise Initiative is a grassroots nonprofit serving over 320 low to moderate income residents in Ithaca’s West End community, helping to increase their access, education and equity. Director Jordan Clemons represented UPI at this meeting, and McGonigal expressed frustrations with lack of communication and follow-through in preparation for today’s hearing.
Despite this frustration, the resolution to provide UPI funding passed 9-1, opposed by Alderperson McGonigal.
Correction, Nov. 2, 3:20 p.m.: This article has been updated to correct Lavine’s quote regarding his 12 years as Ithaca’s city attorney.