Eight Questions in October

Two weeks before the November 2nd General Election, the Ithaca Voice posed eight questions about Tompkins County issues to the three candidates on the ballot for County Legislature in District 8. My thoughtful replies tell much about how I approach this election; my responsibilities as an elected leader; and most importantly, you. Here are the questions and my replies:

Ithaca Voice: What would you deem your 3-5 top legislative priorities if you are elected?

Robert Lynch:Priority one, for any candidate; for any office; in any election; local, state or national, is to get COVID-19 behind us. We’ve lived far too long with this deadly monkey on our back.  We must do all that we can, at every level of government, to fight this invasive virus and to pull together as a society to accomplish our mission.

I do not just talk about fighting COVID.  I act.  The record will show that as far back as August 2020 I took the floor before the County Legislature and advocated for universal COVID-19 surveillance testing at County (and later, federally-reimbursed) expense.  It happened.  Last winter, when my Enfield constituents were clamoring for a vaccine registry, I authored a Town Board Resolution asking both Tompkins County and New York State to make that registry a reality.  Again, it happened.  And most recently, I moved for our Enfield Town Board to put in place a vaccine-or-test mandate for its employees.  No, that didn’t happen; but only because a Town Board majority opposed me.  But I tried.  I will try again.  I’m willing to “take the arrows” when I know I have right on my side.

Priority two for me is governmental transparency. For two years, our County Legislature and its administrative arm kept a big secret from the rest of us.  They negotiated the purchase of $2.8 Million in pricey real estate next to our Courthouse as their now-preferred site for a $30 Million office building.  The purchase only became public this summer when legislators quickly approved the deal.  They invited little public discussion.

I think legislative secrecy is wrong.  We who pay the taxes and elect our leaders have the right to know how those we elevate to power exercise their precious franchise.  Here in Enfield, our Supervisor recently decided to close our Advisory Committee meetings to public attendance.  She’s said having “uninformed” residents attend “is not appropriate as it is more disruptive than productive.”  She could not be more wrong.  Democracy is meant to be messy.  It’s autocracy that is easy.  Then all you need is a 20-pound sledgehammer and a few willing accomplices.  We must demand Open Government.  As County Legislator, I will insist upon it.

Priority three for me must be safety.  I see with increased frequency on this website’s pages stock footage of a police car accompanied by a report of “shots fired,” or “victim stabbed,” or “man assaulted during home invasion.”  The Interim County Administrator recently warned a legislative committee that her staff at the Human Services Building no longer feels safe.  While we strive to achieve racial justice, we must also realize that no one can freely exercise her rights while living her life in fear.  Violent crime, I suspect, is invading our community from places far away.  We must recognize it and address it with intelligence, reason, and courage.

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Ithaca Voice: What do you view as District 8’s role in Tompkins County?

Robert Lynch:District Eight—I prefer to call it the Great Tompkins-Southwest—is a rural district, comprised of Newfield and much of Enfield.  It’s been my home for 52 years.  I feel its pulse.  I cherish its uniqueness.  I vow to protect its interests.

Too often, outsiders, and even many local residents, equate Tompkins County with urbanized Ithaca.  They think Cornell, the Downtown Commons, Moosewood.  But as an Enfield lawmaker, I see a different Tompkins County.  I see the aging woman living in a rundown mobile home; proud, a salt-of-the-earth citizen, who makes ends meet by journeying weekly to the Enfield Food Pantry in the same tattered attire, and whose yard may sprout junk only because her budget fails to carry a line for solid waste fees.  I talk to constituents who can’t understand how our County Government has need to spend $30 Million on new offices or creates fancy administrative jobs with titles hard to comprehend.  I see a County swimming in cash, while we in Enfield struggle to bring our Town Clerk up to a respectable wage.

We in the Great Tompkins-Southwest deserve a person who gives our rural values a voice.  Three people compete this fall for your vote to provide that voice.  Think wisely as you make your choice.  The person you elect must have the reasoning—and the seasoning—to counter the urbanized and more affluent influences that often have our County Legislature spend too much cash and wander off in uncharted directions.  There’s something about this aging country boy.  He can peer through an elitist fog to find the path of common sense.

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Ithaca Voice: Do you agree with the outcome of the Reimagining Public Safety reforms to this point at the county level? What would you have done differently, and what would you like to see still happen?

Robert Lynch:Let me start this way.  One afternoon during this spring’s Primary campaign, I shared some time with a leader within our district, well-known to some.  She said she’d participated in one of those focus groups that contributed to the Reimagining Report. She said she’d felt out of place; as though her thoughtful, tempered, police-supportive responses were not welcomed by the facilitators.  That told me all I needed to know as to the Reimagining Report’s objectivity.

To repeat how I answered a similar question for this news site back in June, I believe the City/County Reimagining Public Safety Report was an “opportunity lost.” We could have accomplished more had we taken a different approach; advanced tougher measures to combat police violence, while according those who provide colorblind law enforcement greater credit for keeping us safe.

Let us truly understand that the “Reimagining Report” was authored in response to a politically-inspired gubernatorial mandate; another instance of Andrew Cuomo spotting a parade, seeing where it was headed, and then jumping to its front.  At a County Legislature meeting last summer, someone asked what Albany had done with the turgid, 98-page document we so methodically prepared at taxpayer expense.  “Oh, they just thanked us for it,” some administrative hired hand replied. Nothing more. So much for mandates.  Any benefit the Reimagining Report provides it provides for us alone.

Our County Administrator should never have taken upon his department the authority to forge a “collaborative” with the City of Ithaca in writing this document.  Not only are the City’s needs different.  Ithaca’s urban citizenry often looks more askance upon tough policing than do we in our county’s rural reaches.  More often we view the police as a friend, not an adversary.  A “community solutions” social worker may at times provide valuable assistance to uniformed officers, providing a softer side to law enforcement.  But this teamworker should only supplement, not supplant, those who must enter dangerous situations and employ deadly force when force is truly needed.

The City of Ithaca now finds itself in open verbal warfare with its police union.  We should never follow Ithaca politicians’ dangerous path of currying favor with the national press while ignoring the hard-working men and women who staff our Public Safety Building.  Mind you, we must never tolerate racist excesses.  Toward that end, I’ve called for a “zero-tolerance policy.” It would demand unapologetic, heightened discipline, including the power to terminate any officer for inappropriate racial misconduct. 

But I also support our Sheriff, Derek Osborne.  I believe he strikes a fair balance.  I worry that the Community Justice Center, now being formed, could suck us into the City of Ithaca’s preferred policing agenda; not our own.  We each have separate needs.  We each should strive toward individualized solutions.

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Ithaca Voice: This is the most crowded race for county legislature. What do you think makes you the best choice between yourself, Vanessa Greenlee and Randy Brown?

Robert Lynch:From the start of my campaign, I’ve promised myself never to “go negative.”  It’s too common elsewhere.  Voters don’t like it.  Neither do I.  But since I’ve been asked to compare and contrast, let me hold true to the facts:

I do not believe one wins an election without hard work, preparation and sacrifice.  Some 50 years ago, when the County Legislature was known as the Board of Representatives, I began covering Tompkins County Government as a broadcast reporter.  I knew and reported on the titans of that era.  Through my reporting, I acquired the unspoken spirit of the place; the gravitas inherent in this county’s governance; the solemn, awesome duty one assumes with the office to which he’s elected; the obligation to represent constituents’ best interests and to place each constituent’s needs above partisan politics or the limited perspectives of those who may carry the largest megaphones.  I respect the Legislature’s Tradition of Transparency, an attribute I fear has been lost in recent years in the drive toward efficiency and expediency.  Knowing an organization’s true cultural heritage is not learned overnight.  I am no newcomer.  I’ve learned it.

But knowledge requires review classes to keep one relevant and fresh.  And just as I did a “deep dive” into Enfield governance before I took my seat on its Town Board—I attended almost every Town Board meeting for nearly a year—I adopted the same tutorial discipline in seeking this seat on the County Legislature. 

Please allow me this one moment to criticize.  And yes, for me, it touches a nerve.  While my competing candidates may have basked in the Good Life evenings last summer, I sacrificed my time to attend each of the County Legislature’s long, twice-monthly meetings.  I was often the only aspiring candidate from any district in Chambers.  But not only did I listen and learn; I also, as any good reporter should, recorded key discussions with pen and paper.  I then went home and labored into the night, chronicling legislative business through stories posted on my website, bob-lynch-tompkins.com. Yes, it’s work.  But no one seeking office should expect to be handed authority on a silver platter.  I do not.

More than once, I brought urgent matters to legislators’ attention in my Privilege of the Floor statements.  I studied the issues that confronted our County’s lawmakers.  I formed opinions.  And I acted on those opinions as conscience dictated I should.  In voice and in writing, I expressed my concerns about COVID-19 and about the Legislature’s $2.8 Million downtown real estate purchase.  I kept informed.  I kept others informed.

My work did not end there.  More often than others—way more often—I attended meetings of the Newfield Town Board.  By doing so, I learned of the issues and the players of a new town I sought to represent.  And, of course, I’ve regularly attended and actively participated in our Enfield Town Board, where I sit as Councilperson.

I am ready.  I believe I’m ready more than others.  I’ve done my homework.  I’ve paid my dues.  And I’m prepared to serve.

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Ithaca Voice: Tompkins County is often thought of as a center of social services in the region. Is the county doing enough to support people who come here for help from the government? What more or less should they be doing?

Robert Lynch:Social Services, at least as a County department, remains one of which I’m not most familiar.  Choosing to lean upon family, not institutions, I have never visited what used to be known as “the welfare office” as a client, and only rarely as a reporter.  However, anecdotally, I’ve heard people describe New York’s Social Services, including our own department, as impersonal, regimented, and downright heartless.  It may be changing.  But change takes time.

Let me relate another constituent story.  I came upon a couple who were parents of a problem teen.  This 18-year old would spirit himself (or herself) away from the family.  Mom and Dad were truly worried that their child would either harm himself or harm others.  They contacted the Mental Health Department.  “Sorry,” was the response, “we’re powerless to act; the person’s an adult.”

That story tells volumes about the failures of “the system;” one social worker either unable or unwilling to stretch the rules a bit, perhaps to save a life, maybe many lives.  Time after time we read the national stories about how government agents have failed, how one lost soul fell through the cracks to society’s peril.  We need a social services network where members’ bravery outpaces conformity.  We need those willing to break the rules to spare society. 

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Ithaca Voice: Though I assume it’s less prominent in Newfield/Enfield than in Ithaca, what concrete initiatives would you introduce to help alleviate affordable housing concerns? Why do you think this problem has taken so long to address, and gotten worse in the interim?

Robert Lynch:I had occasion to address the affordable housing issue earlier in the campaign.  What I said then still holds true.  And I’ll be blunt.  Most of the Ithaca-centric initiatives toward increasing the local housing stock have produced nothing more than a misguided mess.  They rest their central argument upon a flawed premise; namely that local residents want to rent forever.  New housing stock, those  new, tile-faced high-rises that pop up in Ithaca like dandelions—and become just as ugly—fail to serve the true needs of young families who seek to put down roots and build owner equity.  Rentals are for college kids, they say.  “It’s how I lived when I was just starting out,” people tell me.  Yet that’s what this community keeps building.  Why?  Because that’s where the big money lies.

.The Tompkins County Legislature holds at least three seats on the Industrial Development Agency (IDA).  Were I a legislative member, I would encourage the IDA to favor owner-occupied multiple-family housing, not just rentals.  And outside of our urban core, I would discourage overly-aggressive regulation on new home construction.  Let’s not raise the price of a new home beyond the point of affordability. 

“I’m tired of renting.  Do you know of any houses for sale?” one young woman recently asked me as I traveled door-to-door, canvasing in Newfield.  It’s stands as a tragic irony that many of our community’s strongest advocates for affordable housing—rentals, all—would never, themselves, live in such places, but instead already enjoy the fruits of home ownership.  Let’s work to help give our community the kind of housing that they, the people, truly want.  Let’s not just placate the developers.

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Ithaca Voice: Looking beyond Newfield/Enfield, though you will be representing those constituents, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing the county as a whole? Are there county-level initiatives that you view as viable solutions to things like climate change, lack of affordable childcare or broadband access (such as the Town of Dryden’s plan)?

Robert Lynch:This question first hit me as a tough one to answer. What’s “the most pressing issue?”  There are so many.  And then it hit me.  And it happens to be one I had the courage to address in a Privilege of the Floor remark before the County Legislature July 20th.

The Federal Government has assigned Tompkins County Government nearly $19.9 Million under the American Rescue Plan (ARPA).  In an objective sense, we probably don’t deserve the money. The fed’s “counterfactual” (yes, that’s really a word) calculation claims the County treasury lost $27 Million during the pandemic.  Actually, our fund balance grew.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s free money, and we must find the best way to spend it.

Contrary to my advice in late-July, the County Legislature directed all the ARPA funds into “government operations,” with three-quarters of that total reserved as “Cash for Capital,” liquidity that reduces future bonding needs for projects like a new office building.

I told the Legislature that to spend the cash on bricks-and-mortar betrayed ARPA’s intent.  The funds should be “Purposed for People,” as I termed it.  As for earmarking it toward a building, I warned my potential colleagues, “That’s not a rescue plan.  That’s a want.  And you should know the difference between wants and needs.”

I’d like to think my admonition hit home.  Two months later, the County Legislature carved out a back-door path toward spending at least part of Uncle Sam’s money as it should.  The Legislature now plans to tap up to $7 Million, maybe more, from its massive Fund Balance to assist a variety of human service programs that would truly purpose that big relief check toward people needs.

My first priority for the people-purposed money?  How about helping our Enfield Food Pantry get out of its cramped quarters and build itself a new home?   And you know what?  I went before the County Legislature September 7th and told them just that.  It’s how I lead.  It’s how I serve.  Whether on the Enfield Town Board or maybe someday in Legislative Chambers, I govern this way:  I spot a problem.  I see an opportunity.  I seize the moment, and I speak out.  Win or lose this election, I won’t stop doing so.

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Ithaca Voice: Is transportation the largest challenge facing District 8 residents? Is public transportation fixable through pure resource increases or would you suggest efficiency reforms to operate within the current budget of TCAT?

Robert Lynch:District Eight is rural.  Unlike in urbanized Ithaca, a TCAT bus can’t travel every road or stop near every residence. For the foreseeable future, we must look beyond a bus line to address our transportation needs.  Downtown progressives may not want to hear those words.  But rural realists like me know the common-sense truth.  For us, the car is here to stay.

That doesn’t mean TCAT serves no purpose.  Once residents drive to park-and-ride hubs, TCAT can take them to their final destination.  It saves gas.  It saves the planet.  And it saves hassle.  To borrow Broadband Internet slang, TCAT serves the “middle mile” quite well.  It’s that “last mile” to the home that defies a simple solution.

I live perhaps five miles from my nearest park-and-ride lot outside the Enfield Highway Garage.  So if my car breaks down, I can’t ride the bus either.  And ever increasingly, persons of modest means find themselves priced out of the new car market.  To improve the financially-challenged person’s access to better personal transportation, governmental leaders must do what they can to improve vehicle affordability. 

That’s a heavy lift.  Don’t expect one county legislator to solve the problem.  But at least he or she must recognize that the problem exists.  And to ensure those “last miles” of travel are safe and snow-free, let’s invest sufficiently in County and Town Highway Departments.  Return to those departments sufficient staff, like, coincidentally, I voted to do just this month on the Enfield Town Board.

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There are my replies to eight probing questions. Now the job is yours. Please, cast your vote.

Robert Lynch