Chair Black Defends P.R. Chief amid 1st Amendment Flap
Analysis by Robert Lynch, September 23, 2022
This week’s comments by the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature made one point perfectly clear: To some in County Government, the most politically incorrect thing you can do is to criticize the City-County Reimagining Public Safety collaborative.
And Shawna Black’s provocative statement September 20th underscored yet a second point: The only person likely to pay a price for what now might be called “Rordangate” is one poorly-paid, bottom-rung—and now, unemployed—community journalist who had the audacity to report what the mayor of Trumansburg actually, candidly had told her.
“Recently there have been defamatory and uninformed accusations made against our County Communications Director related to his relationship with the local press,” Chairwoman Black stated Tuesday night before the County Legislature in defense of Dominick Recckio, the governmental spokesman that Ithaca Alderperson Jeffrey Barken has accused of “exercising improper influence” over a local weekly newspaper’s reporting of Reimagining-critical comments uttered by Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart.
“Reimagining Public Safety is an investment in better, more transparent, and more equitable way of policing,” Shawna Black insisted, continuing with her rambling, defensive, nearly 700-word monologue that most observers would find not in her character. Reimagining Public Safety, Black maintained, is “an investment in finding ways to meet our community’s increasing needs while freeing up law enforcement officers to handle serious and criminal issues. It is not an anti-police or defund the police measure.”
Still, in some way or another, the otherwise-innocuous August third profile of Mayor Hart reflecting upon his village’s 150th anniversary cost reporter Deidra Cross her job. Following Recckio’s pushback on the alleged “inaccuracies” concerning Hart’s embedded comments on Reimagining, Cross’s employer, Tompkins Weekly, terminated her.
In what most would regard as little more than a hometown puff-piece about a village’s youngest-in-a-half-century mayor, Cross never got to Hart’s criticism of Ithaca’s policing reforms or its impact on T-Burg until her eighth paragraph. Had Recckio not become involved in the matter or had Barken not faulted him for doing so, probably few would have noticed.
For its part, according to media quotes, Tompkins Weekly executives minimize the causal connection between the story and the firing. And they downplay Recckio’s role in all of it.
The Ithaca Voice quotes Tompkins weekly editor Jessica Wickham as saying the termination “was in relation to Cross’ conduct, not the August column.” Nonetheless, Deidra Cross has hired a lawyer, and she intends to sue.
The Voice also quotes Wickham as saying the editor “had never felt threatened by Recckio at any point in their working relationship.”
But, influence, however subtle, coming from the administrative mouthpiece of County Government can have an overpowering—even, intimidating—impact.
Among the trove of exchanges between Recckio and various media organizations, released under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), Matt Butler of The Voice on September 21st quoted an email from the County Communications Director to Wickham’s paper, one more specifically directed at an earlier Deidra Cross Tompkins Weekly article, an April 13th profile of builder, Ithaca Police supporter and Donald Trump partisan, Rocco Lucente:
“I am sharing with you that I am concerned with this week’s ‘Trumansburg Connections’ column in Tompkins Weekly,” Recckio reportedly wrote. “This is peppered with lies, misleading statements and unfounded attacks on several topics, under the guise of featuring a harmless ‘activist and writer’ (namely, Lucente.)”
Did Dominick Recckio step over the line? Perhaps not. But the Communications Director, down just a couple of steps from the County Administrator on the organizational chart, certainly tiptoed close to it.
The argument could be made—and indeed, has been made to this writer—that the official voice of government could better have respected the First Amendment by offering only a counterpoint statement to balance the article or else requesting that the paper reserve space for a County official to provide his or her own Op-Ed perspective. Quite clearly, Dominick Recckio went farther than that.
One must always remember that the First Amendment’s explicit purpose is to avoid infringement of Free Speech by Government and Government actors, and by no one else.
Neither the April nor August Tompkins Weekly articles, nor their official critiques, had gained much traction until Alderperson Barken took his grievance before his Ithaca Common Council September 7th.
“It has come to my attention that a county administrator has, for some time now, been exercising improper influence over a local publication,” Barken said in a floor statement that continued for some eight minutes. “We do not yet know for how long this official misconduct went on, if the problem extends to other news outlets, but a pattern of abuse is strongly suggested.”
Barken that night did not mention Recckio by name, but later acknowledged it was the Communications Director to whom he referred.
“Mayor Hart makes some pretty bold assertions backed up by the columnist that are undermining our efforts,” Barken attributed to the then-unnamed county official.
So, what did Rordan Hart tell Deidra Cross that so inflamed certain players in the Reimagining process? Indeed, the T-Burg Mayor’s words were those you might commonly hear, but only well outside the circle of ultra-liberal activism, that segment which holds disproportionate grip on much of Ithaca-centric politics.
“What we have seen as a result of (Reimagining’s) initiative is the willful dismantling of necessary services,” Deidra Cross quoted Mayor Hart as saying about the City-County policing reform initiative.
“To me, the unthinkable was the end goal, and that was to end law enforcement as we know it,” Rordan Hart opined in words Deidra Cross scrupulously reported. “There’s the mistaken belief by officials on the local level that the effects in their towns exist in a silo. These effects impact all emergency services in the county. You still need the assistance of local agencies. The ripple effect has become evident.”
Rordan Hart is a staunch defender of his village’s tiny police department and T-Burg’s equally-modest ambulance service. And however valid his rationale is, it is this: When Ithaca seeks to turn its uniformed police force into just another civilian-led bureaucracy under Reimagining, officers get demoralized; they quit; no one replaces them; squad cars can’t answer calls; and EMS squads like his village’s have to handle public safety matters instead.
Not only that. As transmitted through Deidra Cross’ pen, Mayor Hart worries that his village’s own uniformed officers may be commandeered to pick up Ithaca’s slack.
“So, if IPD needs more assistance,” Cross wrote, “it has to call on groups like the Trumansburg, Ithaca College and Cornell University police departments, as well as the Tompkins Country Sheriff’s Departments.” Continuing to summarize Hart’s words, the reporter wrote, “In those situations where Trumansburg’s assistance is needed, that would leave the village with no law enforcement.”
It’s a valid concern. And Rordan Hart has every right to speak it. And Deidra Cross has every right to report it. At no point, to anyone’s knowledge, has Mayor Hart retracted his words or complained that he was misquoted. No, rather what makes people like Shawna Black and others in the “Reimagining Blob” bristle is that the mayor said those words at all or that suburban reporters like Cross put them onto paper.
“Unfortunately, Reimagining has become a flashpoint for our community,” Shawna Black told the Legislature Tuesday night, a fact of which no member needed to be reminded. “Some groups automatically and loudly claim that Reimagining is anti-police, or entail defunding the police—but let me be very clear, regardless of politics or party lines, that could not be further from the truth.”
And the dare-you-challenge-our-good-intentions monologue continued.
“Associating other difficult challenges facing our communities with Reimagining isn’t helping us solve problems either,” the Chair told legislators. “Instead, it’s making challenges more political and harder to address—it’s also making it much harder to communicate the truth of what is actually happening and included under Reimagining.”
“Correcting the record of what is and isn’t under Reimagining is the work of this County, just as (is) supporting our law enforcement agencies and emergency services,” Black continued, in a line that should send a chill down the back of any card-carrying ACLU member. One wonders if Shawna Black is one.
Juxtapose those words with what Black stated at the top of her prepared remarks, “Let me state clearly that Tompkins County unequivocally supports freedom of the press and free speech.”
Sadly, oil and water do not mix. Actions do speak louder than words.
One day after Alderperson Barken accused Tompkins County of “exercising improper influence” over Tompkins Weekly and its now-jobless reporter, Tompkins County Attorney William Troy cleared Dominick Recckio of any wrongdoing.
“I have reviewed the facts of the incident in question as the Chief Legal Officer of the County. I have concluded that no violation of the law, much less a breach of anyone’s constitutional rights, has occurred,” Troy wrote in a memorandum addressed to local media outlets.
“After review, I found no threat of suppression of the Tompkins Weekly newspaper or any other publication. I found no evidence of improper influence, misconduct, or abuse of Mr. Recckio’s position,” Tompkins County’s top lawyer continued.
Effectively, the County Attorney provided the Communications Director a wider berth of discretion than some might find comfortable.
Troy’s statement continued, “Tompkins County values the right of anyone to speak openly about public issues. There is also an equal right to disagree with someone’s opinion. Here Mr. Recckio, as the Communications Director of Tompkins County, suggested to the editor of that newspaper that the column in question contained some inaccuracies. At no time was any threat made directly or indirectly against anyone. In fact, upon reviewing Mr. Recckio’s comments the editor of the newspaper undertook a review of the column and made corrections.”
To that point, what were the “inaccuracies?” And what were the “corrections?” Is Rordan Hart entitled to his opinions about Reimagining Public Safety, or is he not? Many line officers at IPD dislike how their department is being transformed. Many have quit or retired. IPD ranks are down in number by perhaps a dozen. And when Ithaca’s cops have thinned to the point that they can’t respond to emergencies, someone else must. Otherwise crime runs amok.
Astute observers may suspect that Tompkins County’s Communications Director—and perhaps its Legislature’s Chair as well—were doing the dirty work for someone else, someone behind Reimagining’s controversial curtain. Shawna Black sounded not herself last Tuesday night. Let’s hope she was just having an unartful moment. Each of us is entitled to one now and then. But a government official touching First Amendment freedoms is akin to you touching that power line outside your house. Don’t attempt it without learned skill and well-insulated gloves.
Rordangate has not produced Tompkins County’s finest hour. Last Tuesday night was not the Legislature Chair’s finest moment. And if I were still in media, I’d offer Deidra Cross a job on the spot. And send her to cover the County Legislature.