13 Rays of Sunlight; My Replies to Sunrise Ithaca

June 8, 2021

To my readers:

On May 20th, Sunrise Movement Ithaca, a liberal activist group focusing its efforts on environmental initiatives, invited candidates in this year’s contested races for the Tompkins County Legislature to participate in an endorsement process.  Toward that end, Sunrise Ithaca posed to each of us 13 questions relating to the environment, equality, and social justice.  The procedure called for Sunrise Ithaca’s endorsement team to review our responses and then hold an endorsement vote.  It required a two-thirds majority of the organization’s participating members to make an endorsement.

On Monday, June 7th, Sunrise Ithaca announced its endorsements.  Sunrise Movement Ithaca endorsed no candidate in our Tompkins-Southwest District, Legislative District #8.  Only two candidates, each in City of Ithaca legislative districts, Democrats Nicole LaFave (Dist. #1) and Veronica Pillar (Dist. #2), secured Sunrise’s endorsement.

Pursuing Sunrise’s support tempts a candidate to pander to the crowd.  I did not.  I cannot.  My principles do not allow it.  Instead, I answered each of the 13 questions honestly and candidly, offering my reviewers straight talk, not sloganeering; principles, not platitudes. 

As a centrist, I realize that my opinions and those of Sunrise Ithaca often diverge.  Fully aware of our differences, I authored reasoned responses to what I found at times to be leading, ideologically-tilted questions, those in search of a predictable, politically-correct, liberally-bathed easy answer.  Sorry, Sunrise, but that’s how I often read them.  Despite our differences, however, I may have struck a chord with Sunrise’s chosen activism from time to time.  At other moments, we may just choose to walk separate paths.  So be it.  My views will always ascend from my mind, my heart, and my soul—and from those I seek to represent—not from some consultant’s play-it-safe handbook.

I put much time and thought into writing these 13 answers.  Now that the endorsement process has concluded, and I have accorded the review team proper respect, I will offer these Sunrise Ithaca questions—and my responses—to you for your review.  Trust me; they speak of who I am and what I believe.

Bob Lynch

2021 County Legislature Endorsement Questionnaire 

  1. What do you hope to accomplish in the first 6 months to 1 year?

Robert Lynch:  Accomplishment requires cooperation.  Any newly-elected County Legislator becomes only one voice among 14, one cog in the wheel of governance.  A freshman member’s charging into the Legislature like that proverbial bull in a china shop would accomplish little.  He would make adversaries, not cement alliances.  His contrarian nature and his dogged pursuit of a personal agenda might forever preclude his forming essential relationships and coalitions that would enable his ideas, with time, to prevail. 

That said, I see my initial, first-year agenda as focusing foremost upon legislative process.  One of the Four Pillars of Leadership I’ve advanced as campaign priorities is that of transparency.  We who serve the public owe it to our constituents to inform them of our actions. We must invite them into our discussions.  We must lead them, step-by-step, through our decision-making process.  We must convince them of our wisdom.  Executive sessions, ever more common in County legislative meetings these past two years, must be kept as few as possible and convened only when necessity demands it.  And when I sense that a closed-door meeting runs contrary to the dictates of New York’s Open Meetings Law, I will not hesitate to speak up and say it is so.

As the legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  And as I have written during this campaign:

“Modern reality can tempt today’s lawmakers to step aside and let the professionals steer Tompkins County toward their hope of a brighter future.  Yet taken to its extreme, those we elect, from their lofty perches on high, may also find themselves tempted to look with disdain upon us citizens and taxpayers; to treat us as little more than aimless children in need of a parent.”

I trust the people first.  I will rely upon them, my constituents, whenever I can and always seek their guidance. But when we who govern fail to inform them properly, those ill-informed constituents can offer us little help.  That’s why transparency means so much to me.  That’s why I will attempt to inform my district’s residents of legislative discussions, decisions and controversies, both through my on-line website and through other means.  And I would hope the candor of my colleagues would aid in my efforts.  As I have also stated during this campaign, “The ornate windows of our 1854 legislative chambers may be old and narrow.  But they can still let in much sunlight.”  Let the sun shine in.

2. How will you increase momentum to adopt something similar to the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND) at the county level?

Robert Lynch:  Straight talk:  The Green New Deal is a slogan, not a solution.  It holds no trademark.  Accordingly, activists may define the phrase any way they choose.  Ms. Ocasio-Cortez may define it one way; the City of Ithaca another; Tompkins County a third way still.

As adopted by Common Council in June 2019, the Ithaca Green New Deal sets a series of aspirational goals, most notably, in the Resolution’s words, “The City of Ithaca… adopts a goal of achieving a carbon neutral city by 2030.”  Setting a goal is one thing.  Achieving that goal always proves more difficult.  I place results above aspirations.

I seek to represent the Tompkins-Southwest District, rural District 8, Enfield and Newfield, in the Tompkins County Legislature. I would not represent the City of Ithaca.  Therefore, I do not necessarily set the City of Ithaca’s environmental priorities as my philosophical North Star.  The City of Ithaca may choose to combat climate change one way.  But we who benefit from the expanses of fields and forests, unconstrained by sidewalks and postage-stamp yards, may prefer to journey a path far different.

But as to the City of Ithaca plan: 

The Ithaca Green New Deal seeks to “reduce emissions from the City fleet of vehicles by 50% from the 2001 levels by 2025.”  The easy solution there would be to buy more hybrid or electric cars. (Dump trucks prove somewhat more difficult.)  Fine.  But to fulfill your aspirations, you’d better budget for more charging stations; many more of them.

Similarly, the same City Resolution “adopts a goal to meet the electricity needs of City government operations with 100% renewable electricity by 2025.”  Sounds attractive.  But when the City buys more renewables off the grid, it will invariably deprive another party from purchasing those same renewables unless more renewable energy is produced in total.  There’s the rub.    

From a rural perspective, we can assist advancement of an energy-enlightened Green Economy by the encouragement of solar and wind energy projects.  At this writing, our Enfield Town Board has under review a 15-Megawatt proposed solar farm, our town’s largest.  I support it. We seek to make it happen.  However, to that second prong of the alternative energy debate, wind power, Enfield’s historical performance, in my opinion, earns a failing grade.

After years of argument and contentious Town Board meetings where partisans nearly came to blows, Enfield’s proposed Black Oak Wind Farm bit the dust at the last mid-decade, its ambitious undertaking murdered in large part by political hostility.  What followed the Black Oak debacle was the Enfield Town Board’s drafting and adoption of a 61-page, 23,000-word (plus Appendices) Wind Law, faulted by Tompkins County’s Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability as including regulations that “would effectively ban large [wind turbine generation] in the Town.”  The Commissioner found that the measure’s restrictions ran contrary to the Wind Law’s own legislative intent and also to the County’s objectives of promoting alternative energy.  The Enfield Town Board overruled the Commissioner’s objections by a supermajority vote.

Town Board adoption—perhaps by intent—came just weeks before I joined that Board. Had I been a member then, I would have opposed the Wind Law.  When charting our energy future, provincial not-in-my-back-yard resistance should never stand in the path of progress.  In Enfield it did.

Neither I nor anyone else on the Enfield Town Board chooses to re-visit or re-litigate the past.  Accordingly, I would not seek to repeal or revise the Enfield Wind Law.  However, as a County Legislator, I would stand behind our Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability in her defense of alternative energy and her knocking down of potential roadblocks to its advancement. However we choose to define the Green New Deal, we must fuel it.  Wind and solar energy provide that fuel.

3. How do you view the role of police in our community?

Robert Lynch:  First principle:  I support our Sheriff.  I believe Derek Osborne does an admirable job in keeping our community safe.  I believe his performance strikes the proper balance between protecting our residents from crime and safeguarding defendants’ constitutional rights.  Most of those I’ve met in my Tompkins-Southwest District, Enfield and Newfield, agree with my assessment.

But let us be honest with ourselves on a second point:  The recently-submitted City-County Collaborative Report on Reimagining Public Safety, a report accepted by our County Legislature and forwarded New York State, failed miserably in its mission.  Most of those I meet say it did more harm than good.  I concur.

As stated in a message I presented the Tompkins County Legislature March 30, 2021, the night the Legislature accepted the Collaborative’s Reimagining Report:

“The Reimagining Public Safety Draft Report lards its pages with wandering words and lofty pronouncements; grandiloquent sentences of sponge…. [Its] monster of a manuscript trades in aspirational abstraction, preferring process over performance; admirable intentions over predictable results.  It seeks systemic change first and foremost, but true punishment hardly at all….”

The Collaborative’s fatal flaw lay at its conception.  The City and County should never have locked arms to seek a common solution.  As I recall, the County Legislature never resolved to enter this Collaborative; administrative staff did.  Elected leaders should have employed greater oversight.  Had I served on the Legislature, I would have urged greater County autonomy.

To intertwine reform of the Ithaca Police Department with that of our rural Sheriff’s Department is to mix water with oil.  The problems remain different, as are the solutions.  As I wrote the Legislature that late-March evening:

“I’ve talked with scores of Enfield and Newfield residents at their doorsteps, in their kitchens and on their front porches….  Many are scared.  They believe their safety has been sold out only to placate a politically-privileged constituency.  They feel City politicians and interest groups have driven this debate.  They sense the tail is wagging the dog.  Many want no part of the Reimagining Plan.  What plays so well so far away to the writers and readers of GQ Magazine fails so miserably in the minds of those living in the shadow of Connecticut Hill.”

Despite all of the overstated, activist rhetoric, academic research has shown that marginalized populations, those often living in communities of color, rely disproportionately upon police to keep their neighborhoods safe.  Fair, lawful, race-neutral policing serves the interests of everyone living in high-crime areas (except, of course, the criminal).  We should not weaken police effectiveness as the result of well-intentioned, yet misguided initiatives to de-fund or disarm law officers.  A neutered enforcement presence will only result in more dead bodies.  A SWAT truck does not kill unarmed black civilians.  Racist, poorly-trained police officers may.

Despite its lofty rhetoric, the City-County Collaborative’s Reimagining Report failed most tragically by failing to supplement its aspirational language with tough punishment.  Had I sat on the Legislature that night, I would have moved a twentieth recommendation, one calling for a Zero-Tolerance Policy against police violence.  Again, drawing upon my prepared remarks:

 “Please, legislators, listen—listen carefully— to the critical pushback our marginalized populations are giving this report.  Their critiques underscore Reimaging’s core weakness, one that they see, one that I see, but maybe you do not.  It’s the absence of true accountability, the courage to impose tough, tough rules upon those who wear the badge.  Cast aside the arbitrators, the union contracts, and all the other options for excuse than can encourage timidity.  Learn to say two little words in the face of police violence or racial bias in blue:  You’re fired!”

In 2010, an Ithaca drug suspect, Shawn Greenwood, died from a police bullet as he attempted to use his car as a weapon against officers outside Pete’s Grocery.  Make no mistake, Greenwood was no angel.  He deserved to be arrested, tried, convicted, and probably imprisoned.  But he did not deserve to die that night.  Better policing might have prevented his death.  But sadly, despite the Reimagining Report’s many “grandiloquent sentences of sponge,” nothing prescribed in that document would have kept Shawn Greenwood alive.  No unarmed “community solutions officer” would ever have been dispatched that night to affect his arrest.  Results matter far more than do well-intentioned words.  Here in Tompkins County, policing reform remains very much a work in progress.

4. How do you plan to support workers in the transition towards a green economy?

Robert Lynch: With this question, you ask far more than a single county legislator can ever attempt to deliver.  Worker retraining and reeducation initiatives remain tasks better left to state and national economic planners and labor skills managers. 

That said, however, perhaps it may help to start at the bottom and work up.  Look at the cause of the problem, and not just its solution. Accordingly, I would suggest that those proposing a transition to the so-called “green economy,” (however it’s defined) perform an economic impact study of potential disruptions each and every step of the way. Look at economic and labor disruption, not just the environmental impact of the actions proposed. Apply a costs-benefits balancing test.  Is every change worth its cost?  Transition entails tough choices.  Some of these may be worth the cost; others not.

5. How do you plan to increase both more affordable and more sustainable housing?

Robert Lynch:  May I speak the truth few others do?  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.

One prominent developer recently said in public session that no one’s built a local condominium since the 1980’s.  For Big Real Estate, the profit return doesn’t exist to justify the investment. The County attempted to convert the Old Library site into equity housing during the past decade.  It failed.  What will rise where the Old Library fell will be more rentals.  That’s what always gets built.

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.

6. What are your plans for combating food insecurity while increasing availability of locally, sustainably produced food?

Robert Lynch:  I volunteer weekly at the Enfield Food Pantry, applauded as Tompkins County’s most ambitious and successful free food distribution program.  We serve hundreds of deserving clients weekly.  We have outgrown our facilities.  Yet we labor on.

The Enfield Food Pantry

Food pantries constitute the first and best line of defense against food insecurity.  Each of our municipalities should establish pantries that mimic Enfield’s.  Many are quartered in only a spare room at a church.  Many lack refrigerator or freezer space like we in Enfield enjoy (though we need increased capacity). Many pantries recruit too few volunteers to sort and distribute the volume of food that we in Enfield do.  We all need to step-up, countywide.

Improved final-stage, volunteer-to-patron distribution would enable better inter-pantry coordination by the Food Bank distribution network.  Additional County and State funds could be allocated for larger and more extensive food pantry facilities.  Perhaps County Government could earmark funds for a county-wide coordinator.

As for local food production, I see the key lying in relaxed local regulation.  Local zoning or environmental laws must not thwart small-scale farming or farm-to-table distribution.  I’m a farm boy.  I grew up raising chickens and maintaining an egg route.  Those of a new generation should be allowed similar opportunities.

7. How do you plan to support community members that are experiencing housing or job insecurity as a result of the pandemic?

Robert Lynch:  The best way we can rid ourselves of the ancillary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is to rid ourselves of the pandemic itself.  I support universal, voluntary vaccination.  I make universal vaccination a key element of the “Safety” initiative I’ve set as among my “Four Pillars of Leadership.”  When we put the pandemic behind us, so many of its problem side-effects will vanish in the ether of our recovery.

We must stop politicizing the vaccination effort.  This is no more Joe Biden’s vaccine than it is Donald Trump’s.  Vaccine hesitancy holds no scientific basis in fact.  Anti-vaxx irrationality will only endanger our family members and friends.  And it will hold society back from a true return to normal.  We need festivals, county fairs—and yes, hugs.

Let’s stop living life from under the bed.  As long as we do, problems like “housing or job insecurity” will remain with us.  Vaccination serves as the best antidote to these societal poisons.

8. How do you plan to make transportation more sustainable, affordable, and accessible?

Robert Lynch:  I live in the country.  My constituents do too.  To state that we can rely on “the bus” to get us from place to place trades in sophistry.  Even when we choose mass transit to transport us from Newfield or Enfield Center to Cornell, most of us require a car to get us to the regional transit stop.  Mass transit may answer transportation challenges in our urban center.  It does not where I live.

How, then, to make our rural transportation “more sustainable, affordable, and accessible?”  I’ll focus here on the affordability part.  Persons of modest means find themselves priced out of the new car market.  Part of the problem relates to the many new devices that Detroit and regulators force upon the buying public.  Yes, some come through environmental mandates.  Others flow from regulatory risk aversion.  Frankly, I might like a car with a back-up camera, but I don’t need it.

To improve the financially-challenged person’s access to better personal transportation, do what society can to improve affordability.  Obviously, such an initiative stands far beyond what an individual county legislator can achieve at the local level.

But may I mention a further point that few others will?  Perhaps they decline to speak out of fear.  I am not so shy.  Will someone, either state, federal—or however unlikely, local—take the initiative to break up the Maguire Monopoly?  It stifles competition.  It blocks new dealer entry. It cost Pritchard Dodge its franchise.  Maguire’s monopoly inflates prices and makes ours a “one-dealer town.”  It never should have come to exist in the first place.  Someone holding regulatory power should force this family-run, small-city version of Standard Oil to spin off its holdings.

9. What are your plans for making child care more accessible and affordable for working parents?

Robert Lynch:  In my rural travels, I’ve observed that much of what counts as “affordable child care” is family- or neighborhood-based.  Either Gramma takes care of the kids, or the lady down the road does.  Nothing’s wrong with that.  It’s always been that way.  It should always continue that way.

Let’s not institutionalize child care to the point that small-scale providers find themselves regulated out of existence.  As a County Legislator, I would keep a watchful eye on intrusive State or local regulations that overly burden the small-scale child care provider.  National efforts to expand pre-Kindergarten programs will help, of course.  But who will take care of the four-year old once she returns from Pre-K?  Family-based or community-based child care often serves as the most accessible, most affordable option.  Let’s encourage it.

10. How do you plan to advance and protect voting rights and fight against voter suppression of BIPOC residents?

Robert Lynch:  Please answer this question?  Is “voter suppression” really occurring in New York State?  In Tompkins County?  I do not see it.  And I do not hear of it, aside from the occasional anecdotal remark, the most recent raised to me in recent days by a conservative rural Republican who faulted Board of Elections’ ineptitude for keeping him from voting last fall by falsely claiming he wasn’t registered. (My records show that he was.)  “Suppression” demands intent.  Mere incompetence does not qualify.

Let us not look for imaginary bogeymen buried under every local rock just because unscrupulous partisans may tighten the election rules in Georgia, Texas or Arizona. When it comes to denial of the franchise, I look in a different direction; namely to political apathy and the lack of citizen participation in our own community.  I will make my case.

This year, despite the past 18 months of recurring, Town-wide controversies, no one stepped forward to challenge any of the Town of Enfield’s seven incumbent office-holders in their respective Democratic or Republican primaries. (In one instance, a single newcomer would replace an office-holder who’s retiring.)  To my knowledge, only one of those incumbents will face an opponent in our Town’s November General Election.  In the Town of Newfield and in the southern two-thirds of Enfield, only the County Legislative seat I currently seek will hold a primary.  Northern Enfield will hold no primary at all.

Nine of the Tompkins County Legislature’s 14 incumbents will seek re-election this year.  Absolutely none of those nine incumbents will face either a primary challenge or an opponent in the General Election.  Each of those nine incumbents—plus the Republican designee named to replace a retiring County legislator in Groton—will, in effect, win by coronation. [Note: Since the submission of these answers, an Independent candidate emerged to challenge Dryden incumbent Mike Lane.]

That, my friend, is the problem with electoral democracy in our county, Tompkins County: a lack of voter choice.  When no one steps forward to offer the person in power a fair fight, our elections become no more liberated than those in North Korea.  Lack of choice may not constitute voter suppression, but suppression of democracy it is.  I am doing my part.  I am running in a contested election.  So are my district’s two other candidates.  I wish we had 14 such contests.  We do not.  I regret that fact.  I cannot change it, but you can—next time.

11. In the context of Cornell’s history as a land-grab university and indigenous dispossession in the region, how do you plan to support indigenous sovereignty and liberation by engaging indigenous community members and local leaders?

Robert Lynch:  Sadly, throughout history and even today, wars impose collateral damage upon those who find themselves on the losing side of a conflict.  Wars lead to the surrender of homelands and the displacement of peoples.  Yet the tragic misfortunes of the past do not, by themselves, transform Cornell into “a land-grab university.”  I will not rewrite history to make it be so.  Nor will I erase history.  We must learn from history so that its worst elements will never happen again.

12. How do you plan to support the sustainable development?

Robert Lynch:  “Sustainable development” stands as one of those fashionable 21st Century catch phrases that lends itself to just about anybody’s chosen definition.  So here’s how I define “sustainable development,” particularized to our community.  In my view, Ithaca has lost its soul.

When I came to Tompkins County as a Cornell student in 1968—and never left—Ithaca looked and felt far different than it does today.  Compare the Collegetown of that era with the high-rise jungle it has become.  You can’t.  Downtown Ithaca follows in C’town’s footsteps.

One of those many new downtown Ithaca developments

From time to time, particularly with the Old Library and then with the “Nine’s” controversy, I’ve attempted to step forward, plant my flag, state my case, and then accord the democratic process an opportunity to come to its senses.  It has not.  An ambitious, development-obsessed Ithaca mayor, too young to be guided by any degree of historical perspective, breaks tie votes so as to anoint himself as Ithaca’s one-man Welcome Wagon to the wrecking ball.  As landmarks fall, Ithaca rises toward the clouds.  The “quirky” Ithaca that I and so many of my generation have learned to love, finds itself replaced by pricey, nondescript, tile-faced boxes.  Millionaire developers reap the rewards.  Locals pay the price.

I had hoped that the last mayoral election, the election of 2019, would have become, as I then described it, “A Referendum on Ithaca’s Soul.”  It did not.  No one stepped forward to give Mayor Myrick a serious challenge.  Common Council incumbents swept into new terms.  Ithaca shrugged.

My rural constituents, those in the legislative district I seek to represent, cite the destruction of our urban center’s physical character, the City’s misguided, shortsighted, transformation of its skyline, as perhaps their most frequent complaint.  If elected to the Tompkins County Legislature, I’d set community preservation as a vital objective and summon whatever power stood within my grasp to retain what’s “right” and “good” about this community so as to protect it for future generations.  During this past development-frenzied decade, much of Ithaca’s soul has already been sacrificed in the name of purported “progress.”  We need not destroy what little of our architectural heritage remains.

13. Do you have plans to increase Cornell’s financial contribution to the Ithaca and Tompkins County community?

Robert Lynch:  This question assumes a conclusion that I am not comfortable to draw; namely that Cornell University fails to provide the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County adequate “financial contribution” already.  Therefore, I need not speculate recklessly and foolishly, without knowing more.

Cornell University already provides local payments in lieu of tax.  Furthermore, it stands as this county’s leading employer, doling out millions of dollars in wages and benefits to thousands of local employees.  Equally as important, the university draws to this community some 15,000 students, captive, transient residents whose spending in so many ways enhances the local economy.  Cornell can easily become the whipping boy of convenience for many.  No matter how favorably some may choose to greet that punishing mob, I choose not to join the crowd.

There are my 13 answers to the questions of Sunrise Movement Ithaca.