Robert Cantelmo grad officially assumed the Ithaca mayoral position on Wednesday, Jan. 3 at the first Common Council meeting of the calendar year.
Cantelmo, who represented the Fifth Ward on the Common Council from 2021 through 2023, is the first mayor of Ithaca to serve alongside a city manager.
The city manager role was created by former mayor Svante Myrick ’09 in January 2021 to be an official who would handle the city’s operations. Because the position absorbs many former mayoral roles, Cantelmo will take on fewer responsibilities than his predecessor, Mayor Laura Lewis, and an over 50 percent decrease in salary.
According to the City of Ithaca website, the inaugural City Manager Deb Mohlenhoff — who was selected on Nov. 15 and sworn in on Jan. 1 — will oversee administrative tasks previously allocated to the mayor. These tasks include supervising department heads, negotiating with labor unions, developing and presenting the annual budget, appointing the city attorney, chairing the capital budget committee and serving as chief executive officer of the city.
Cantelmo, who supported the referendum to establish the city manager position in November 2022, said in an email statement to The Sun that the new leadership organization has been successful thus far, though it may experience small changes over time
“It is very possible that something may need to be tweaked along the way, as this is our first year operating with this form of government. Small, unforeseen challenges are bound to crop up when undertaking so massive a change,” Cantelmo said in the statement. “So far, however, things have been working excellently. The city manager and I have a great relationship and speak several times a week to ensure staff and Council are apprised of all important issues and so that the city can be responsive to the public’s needs.”
Cantelmo is pursuing a Ph.D. in government at Cornell and serves as the associate director for grant writing and assessment at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, where he researches democratic backsliding in the Democratic Threats and Resilience initiative.
In a previous interview with The Sun, Cantelmo explained that his research — while at an international scale — had relevance to the role of local governments.
“Even these hyper-local issues that we deal with about streets’ being paved, sidewalks’ being in good condition, fire departments’ being fully staffed — this is all service delivery stuff that matters at the local level, no matter where you are in the world,” Cantelmo said. “It’s when governments are unable to provide those basic services to their populace that some of these risks are generated about threats to democracy. I love having the ability to engage in good evidence-based policymaking at the local level.”
In his Inaugural State of the City Address, Cantelmo praised the city’s work on infrastructure in 2023, which included securing $800,000 for flood mitigation efforts in a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The terms of the newly negotiated Memorandum of Understanding between Cornell and the City of Ithaca — which Cantelmo had a role in shaping as an alderperson — also stipulated increased funding for infrastructure projects in Ithaca in coming years.
Cantelmo explained that he has been working to continue the collaboration between the city and other levels of government in addressing city issues during the first month of his term.
“I have spent a lot of this first month rebuilding and strengthening the city’s relationships with our partners around Tompkins County, in Albany and in Washington, [D.C.],” Cantelmo wrote. “No city can solve all of its problems alone, and it’s imperative that we develop strong partnerships across all levels of government to advocate for our needs — especially state or federal aid, build support on key issues and remind folks that Ithaca is a dynamic and progressive engine for change.”
In his address, Cantelmo listed his policy objectives for the near future. He discussed implementing the Ithaca Green New Deal, resolving problems with public transportation and addressing what he labeled a “housing and affordability crisis.”
He identified increasing the housing supply as a means to combat increasing unaffordability in the housing market, as home prices in Tompkins County increased by more than double the rate of inflation from 2012 to 2022.
“I call upon my colleagues to work with me to expand the stock of housing in our community so that housing affordability and homeownership are achievable for all Ithacans,” Cantelmo said. “Placemaking must be a core element of this effort, to ensure every neighborhood has welcoming and inviting public space.”
In his address, Cantelmo seemed to embrace the change he is set to oversee as mayor under a new leadership system and throughout the city.
“Ithaca has always been a unique community, full of promise and potential,” Cantelmo said. “The charge before us is to steward this community through this time of change toward a future that delivers on that promise for us and for posterity.”