February 2020 Reporting Archives

Enfield Board adopts Pledge of Allegiance procedures, but resists oath’s full return

by Robert Lynch, February 26, 2020

“Only by request.”

Enfield’s Town Board meeting room flag

Such will become the procedure for reinstating the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of monthly meetings following action Wednesday (Feb. 26th) by the Enfield Town Board.

With Pledge supporter Robert Lynch (this writer) casting the lone dissent, the Board adopted a resolution, authored by Supervisor Beth McGee, affirming the right of Board members or the public to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but only under a meeting’s introductory Privilege of the Floor.

The Board declined to return the Pledge to its original place within a meeting’s regular order of business, a position it had occupied before the Board removed it January 8th amid concerns by some members that the Pledge’s “under God” reference violates separation of Church and State.

Before adopting Supervisor McGee’s resolution, the Board tabled Councilperson Lynch’s stronger resolution that would have effectively reversed January’s vote.  The Lynch compromise would have instructed the presiding officer to urge members to stand at every meeting and designate a Board member to lead in reciting the Pledge.  Lynch’s measure would have acknowledged anyone’s right to decline participation “based on his or her political, ethical, or religious beliefs, or for any reason whatsoever.”

In debate preceding the votes, McGee indicated she felt return of the “under God” reference within a mandatory agenda item constituted compelled speech, conduct Supreme Court precedent explicitly prohibits.  Nonetheless, Lynch’s tabled resolution provided that “neither the meeting’s presiding officer, nor any member of this Board, shall coerce, pressure, or compel any Board member or meeting attendee to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or any portion thereof.”

Lynch said that he opposed the McGee resolution, and an amendment attached to it, because he believed the measure was not strong enough.

As many as 20 residents took turns before the Board’s votes Wednesday to comment on the Pledge issue.  Seventeen of those 20 voiced support for the Pledge’s total return.  Only three said they either supported the January action, or were noncommittal.  

During Wednesday’s debate, Lynch reported that of the 21 emailed or spoken public comments given Board members in recent weeks, as many as 17 (81%) supported the Pledge’s return.  Lynch said he saw the ceremonial oath as a patriotic exercise, not as a religious one.  He added that the writings of Supreme Court Justices agreed with his conclusion.

The adopted McGee resolution, in its introductory paragraph, asserted that the Board “recognized Constitutional challenges” by including the Pledge in “the Town Board Regular Meeting Outline compelled by the Local Government.”

While no Supreme Court decision has reached the merits as to whether the “under God” phrase violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, judicial commentary in one Supreme Court case classified the phrase as “ceremonial deism,” its religious impact “lost through rote repetition.”  In another, former Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that an atheist’s objection to the recitation constituted a “‘heckler’s veto’ over a patriotic ceremony” in which others choose to participate.

Wednesday’s adoption resolution actually changed very little in Enfield Board procedure.  Attendees were always free to recite the Pledge of Allegiance during their floor privileges, and at recent meetings, several have done so.  The McGee resolution’s only real impact is that those who recite the Pledge will not now have that recitation time deducted from the three minutes allowed them to discuss other matters.

Note: The Ithaca Voice has also reported this story. View it at: https://ithacavoice.com/2020/02/enfield-town-board-walks-back-elimination-of-pledge-from-public-meetings/


Deadlock Over: McBean-Clairborne elected Tompkins Legislative Chair

by Robert Lynch, February 18, 2020

Ithaca’s Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Tuesday upon hearing the vote tally elevating her to Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature

The Michelle Obama bobblehead, which Tompkins County legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne says mysteriously appeared in her desk drawer about a year ago, and which she’s proudly displayed on that desk ever since, has now migrated with its owner to the head table of County Legislative Chambers.

Breaking a two-month, seven round stalemate of tied votes, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday (Feb. 18th) elevated McBean-Clairborne to become its new permanent Chair.  She also becomes the first Person of Color to occupy that position in Tompkins County history.

“Yes, I’m an immigrant girl, and I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished since I’ve been here,” McBean-Clairborne said as she wiped away the tears before a hushed Legislature audience.  The 20-year Democratic incumbent continued:

“Life has not been easy.  Growing up poor, growing up without coming here, hitting rock bottom, starting over, all those experiences; knowing what it’s like to go to Department of Social Services and beg for food stamps and financial assistance; know what it’s like to be homeless.  All of those things have shaped my… experience, for the knowledge I bring to this body and has shaped the votes that I’ve taken over the years, and common-sense stuff.  So, thank you.”

McBean-Claiborne’s elevation climaxed a protracted bipartisan impasse that’s spanned three County Legislature meetings since January 7th, when lawmakers first tied in four successive ballots for the leadership spot between Democrats Michael Lane of Dryden and Anna Kelles of Ithaca. 

Voting rounds in two successive sessions drew the same seven-seven (or seven-six) split, with eight votes required.  On February 7th, County Clerk Maureen Reynolds exercised her role under the County Charter and appointed Ithaca’s Shawna Black as Acting Chair.  At about the same time, Kelles withdrew from the contest, announcing her plans to run, instead, for State Assembly.

Initially, observers saw a clear path for Lane to cruise to victory.  But that was not to be.  Instead, the Kelles faction quietly lined up behind McBean-Clairborne.  Republican legislator David McKenna alluded to the move at an Enfield Town Board meeting February 12th

Tuesday, the logjam ended when Enfield’s other county legislator, Ulysses’ Anne Koreman, along with Acting Chair Black, bolted from the Lane faction to back McBean-Clairborne.  It led McBean-Clairborne to a nine-to-five victory.

With the Chair’s vote decided, the Legislature quickly tapped Black, last year’s Vice-Chair, for a second year in that subordinate role.  Only one legislator, Ithaca’s Rich John, opposed Black’s re-election.

In nominating McBean-Clairborne to the body’s top spot, Democrat Kelles, in her unscripted remarks, described her nominee as a “connector,” adding that she was “very grateful and honored” to also call McBean-Clairborne a friend.

Leslyn at the Chair’s Table

“Leslyn, to me, is the soul of the Legislature,” observed Kelles. “She’s served continuously with integrity and honor.  She speaks her mind, but she never does it to hurt or harm anyone, but to lift people up.”

In her own remarks, McBean-Clairborne praised Lane, who’d battled for Chair to a tie seven times, only to fall short in the end.  The newly-named Chair thanked Lane “for being someone of integrity and someone who has been in my corner for many years.”

Leslyn McBean-Clairborne serves professionally as Executive Director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.  Her husband, J.R. Clairborne, was recently named Tompkins County’s Director of Veteran’s Services.


Public Pushback Prompts Promise to Ponder Pledge Policy

Enfield Board set to reexamine Oath’s deletion February 26th

by Robert Lynch, February 15, 2020

“Can a meeting run without it?  Sure.  Should it?  My answer is ‘No’”

The American Flag in our Meeting Room

Hines Road resident Tammy Alling’s plea joined that of more than a half-dozen of her neighbors Wednesday (Feb. 12th) as they packed the Enfield Town Board’s monthly meeting to urge it restore the Pledge of Allegiance to its routine spot at the start of every meeting.

In public comments, including in messages emailed Town Board members, residents have called for the Board to reverse its decision taken January 8th when it organized meetings for the year by deleting the Pledge’s recitation.  The majority responded to some members’ concerns that the patriotic oath’s reference to “under God” violates the Separation of Church and State.  The nearly unanimous vote drew widespread press coverage, including an unconfirmed report that CNN had aired the Board’s recorded discussions.

In responding to comments Wednesday, Supervisor Beth McGee set a special Board meeting for Wednesday February 26th to discuss the Pledge’s potential restoration along with other Town business.  The meeting’s posted online agenda lists “Pledge of Allegiance Issue” as the stated topic.  Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer), the only member to vote against the January deletion, has introduced a Resolution that would return the Pledge to its prior status.

“People can make mistakes,” Lynch told the Board at the close of Wednesday’s public comments. “But Town Boards can make mistakes too.  And I think what I heard tonight from the comments that have been expressed is that we made a mistake a month ago.”

Lynch acknowledged that he hadn’t joined his colleagues in January when they stripped the Pledge from meetings, then adding, “But maybe I didn’t defend it enough.”

Lynch’s proposed Resolution would restore the Pledge of Allegiance to all Town Board meetings, though make clear that “neither the meeting’s presiding officer, nor any member of this Board, shall coerce, pressure, or compel any Board member or meeting attendee to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or any portion thereof….”  The Resolution would request that all able-bodied attendees stand during the recitation “to demonstrate proper respect” for those who choose to recite the oath.

Some attendees Wednesday urged the Board to act immediately.  But Supervisor McGee begged off action until Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey returns from overseas travel.  “I’m not interested in having a full conversation without a full Board,” McGee stated.

Twice during their public comments Wednesday, attendees recited the Pledge themselves, inviting others, including Board members, to join them.  Some at the head table rose and recited the Pledge.  Others remained seated.

Public comments Wednesday often pulled at patriotic heartstrings, with commenters, many of them older residents, some of them veterans, citing the Pledge of Allegiance as an affirmation of American ideals.

“That’s not just a fabric hanging there,” said Enfield Center’s Helen Hetherington, pointing to the flag draped behind the meeting table.  “It represents our military; what they’ve done to give us freedom.”

Bev Rollins, wife of the Highway Superintendent, said she felt both “shocked” and “insulted” by the Board’s January action, viewing it as an attempt toward inclusion that backfired.

“You’ve insulted our culture; you’ve insulted the way we live,” Rollins said.  “If this had been an open discussion before the election, it would have been much better because we could have had a choice on this.”

Former Board member and veteran Herb Masser also faulted the majority for deleting the Pledge without public comment and warned that members who stand their ground do so at their own peril.

“I used to sit on this Board,” Masser recalled, “and I kept in mind that I represented the people.  We (the constituents) don’t work for you.  You work for us…. And if you vote the Pledge down again, we’re going to keep that in mind the next election.”

Theresa Guler, an outspoken critic of the now-defunct Black Oak Wind Farm project, took her turn before the Board to equate current divisions over the Pledge with what she termed “the whole Black Oak thing.”

“It really separated the community, and it put people in a negative environment.  And it’s really sad sitting here and watching all the people get upset and bashin’ this and that, and the community should be as one.  We should be supporting each other, and we should be lifting each other up.”

Tompkins County Legislator David McKenna, during his remarks to brief the Town Board on county business, rendered his opinion on the Pledge as well.

“My two cents on the flag,” said McKenna, “I think we should put it back in.”

McGee then reminded the legislator that only the Pledge is gone from meeting order, not the flag itself.

Only one attendee supported the Board’s January action.  Julie Schroeder maintained it was “appropriate” for the Board to delete the Pledge, insisting it would have been far more divisive to have removed only the “under God” reference.   And the Bostwick Road resident observed that, to her, inclusion of the Deity’s reference could be “off-putting to people who don’t potentially believe in ‘The God,’ no matter what their spiritual dedication or beliefs are.”

Newly-elected Councilperson Stephanie Redmond initiated the January action to delete the Pledge.  In his remarks, Councilperson Lynch urged constituents not to take out their frustration upon his colleague, but rather on the Board collectively.

“I want to say that I believe fully in her,” Lynch said, without referencing Redmond by name.  “She was a woman of principle, who stood on principle.  She divides the Separation of Church and State at a little different place than I do.  We should be able to agree to disagree.”


Three from Cortland join three from Tompkins seeking Lifton seat

by Robert Lynch, February 15, 2020

At times, one feels it’s like we’re watching the Democratic Presidential race of last summer.

Three more candidates, two of them Democrats, and each from Cortland County have now joined the race to succeed Ithacan Barbara Lifton in the New York State Assembly.

Democrats Beau Harbin and Lisa Hoeschele and Libertarian Matthew McIntyre each announced within the past week their intentions to represent Enfield and all of Tompkins County, as well as southwestern Cortland County, in the State Assembly’s 125th District.

The three join Ithaca’s Anna Kelles and Seph Murtagh and Dryden’s Jason Leifer in seeking to succeed 18-year Democratic incumbent Lifton, who announced January 31st her intention to retire from the Assembly at year’s end.

Sources indicate at least one additional Democrat, an Ithacan, is poised to enter the race, but has yet to announce.

Beau Harbin, like Kelles, holds leadership in County government, in his case, serving as the Cortland County Legislature’s minority leader.  Harbin, in his announcement, said he has the best chance of carrying forth Lifton’s legacy:

“As I listened to Barbara Lifton make her announcement that she was not seeking another term as our Assemblywoman, I was struck by the incredible legacy of leadership and progressive values she has left on our district.  She has done many things for our community and fought many fights to help make our region and our state better. I knew then that her legacy needed to continue with someone dedicated to these same values.”

Echoing many of Kelles’ themes, Harbin said he seeks to expand childcare opportunities, reform education funding, invest in affordable housing, and support the New York Health Act, Albany’s answer to what some national Democrats’ call Medicare for All.  It’s a plan which candidate Murtagh also supports.

Lisa Hoeschele, meanwhile enters the race as Executive Director and CEO of Cortland’s Family and  Children’s Counseling Services.  Hoeschele says that improving the delivery of health care, making education more affordable and equitable and addressing climate change would be her priorities in Albany.

“Better health care, more affordable health care; a higher education system that supports our students and doesn’t drown them in debt; and I’m really concerned with climate change,” Hoeschele said. “In a climate where we are literally seeing our forests burn before us and our glaciers melting before our very eyes, we do what we can as New Yorkers to make change there.”

Libertarian Matthew McIntyre marks the latest 125th District entry.  Chair of Cortland County’s Libertarian Party, the Homer native and ex-Marine in his announcement struck a more conservative and combative tone, saying “I believe I am the right man for the job because I have already volunteered to lay down my life in the fight for the people’s rights before, and will continue to bring that battle straight to Albany.”

McIntyre added, “This community has a lot of good and virtuous people living in it, and it’s time to allow them to start living freely, absent from the control of an oppressive government that only seeks to force their will by way of elected officials who pay little mind to their people’s needs and cries,”

If successful at petitioning, Harbin and Hoeschele will meet their Ithaca Democratic rivals in a late-June primary.  That primary’s winner would then go on to face McIntyre and a potential Republican nominee in November.

The Ithaca Voice contributed to this story.


Smoking Ban on Town property broadened by Enfield Board

by Robert Lynch, February 14, 2020

Smoking or vaping on Town property, including parking lots, now stands off-limits following action Wednesday (Feb. 12th) by the Enfield Town Board.

By unanimous vote following limited discussion (Town Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey was excused), the Board adopted the Town of Enfield Tobacco-Free Policy.  The policy states that “Tobacco use of any kind, including electronic cigarette use, is hereby prohibited on Town of Enfield property, including all internal and external areas.”

Prohibited smoking areas would include parking lots on Town Property and inside Town-owned vehicles, but not within the confines of one’s personal auto.

Adoption of the policy, drafted by Supervisor Beth McGee and modeled after a similar statement enacted by Cortland County’s Village of McGraw, has been under discussion since mid-2019, when operators of the Enfield Food Pantry, located inside the Enfield Community Building, voiced their concern that smoking by pantry patrons could endanger the health of the service’s volunteers.

New York State law already prohibits smoking in places of employment, as well as in bars, restaurants, enclosed indoor swimming areas, public transportation and most commercial establishments. The state’s ban includes municipal offices and meeting rooms.  However, the state law left unregulated public parking lots and outdoor waiting areas.  Pantry patrons often stand outdoors—and sometimes smoke—as they await their turn to receive free food.

The newly-adopted Enfield law now closes New York’s loophole, stating that “The Town of Enfield does not allow the use of tobacco products on Town owned land, facilities, or open space except within the confines of a personal vehicle in a designated parking area.”  It also holds that “Town employees may not smoke in Town-owned vehicles.”

The Enfield restrictions closely parallel, but are slightly less restrictive than, the “Tobacco-Free Workplace” policy Tompkins County put in place for its facilities.  The County’s policy extends its tobacco ban to “privately owned vehicles parked on county property,” and it includes “smokeless tobacco” such as chewing tobacco and snuff, as prohibited substances.

Asked Wednesday why smoking in private cars should be permitted, Supervisor McGee explained to her Board that Highway Superintendent Barry (Buddy) Rollins is unwilling to enforce the ban within an owner’s personal vehicle since his workforce has no other place on Highway Department grounds to light up.  McGee further argued the exemption supports her view that intrusion of government onto private property must have its limits.

The Board declined to address the question, raised by one attendee, as to whether those smoking in their own vehicles must do so only with their windows rolled up.


Three… and (maybe) counting.

Democrats scramble to succeed Assemblywoman Lifton

by Robert Lynch, February 8, 2020

Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles Friday (Feb. 7th) became the third candidate within the week to announce an intention to succeed the retiring Barbara Lifton as Enfield’s and Tompkins County’s representative in the New York State Assembly.

Latest NY Assembly candidate , Ithaca’s Anna Kelles, standing by the Cass Park “Turtle

Ithacan Kelles joins Second Ward Ithaca Common Councilperson Seph Murtagh and Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer as candidates for the 125th District’s Democratic nomination.  Murtagh and Leifer separately announced their candidacies earlier in the week.

Multiple sources have identified at least one other local Democrat as contemplating an Assembly run, but not yet prepared to announce.  The name of a fifth potential entrant has been advanced through social media.

Lifton, a nine-term, 18-year veteran of the New York State Assembly, announced January 31st her plans to retire at year’s end.  The Ithaca incumbent did not designate a preferred successor.

In announcing the latest candidacy Friday, Kelles, a member of the Tompkins County Legislature since 2015 and its former Vice-Chair, commended Lifton for serving her district “with dignity and honor,” adding:

“I applaud her commitment to public service, particularly her central role in attaining a state moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and bringing vital economic resources to Tompkins and Cortland Counties. I am ready to continue this legacy and represent the people of the 125th District in Albany with determination and heart.” 

In her candidacy announcement, Kelles said that if elected, she would focus on four key issues: affordable housing within walkable communities, access to affordable child care, reducing healthcare costs, and protecting the environment.

Ithaca Councilperson Seph Murtagh, meanwhile, in an interview with the Cornell Sun, said his campaign will focus on issues of housing and property taxes; education funding; and like Kelles, the environment.

Murtagh’s Second Ward district encompasses much of downtown Ithaca and its close-by neighborhoods.  Murtagh, a former local journalist, has served since 2015 as Assemblywoman Lifton’s communications coordinator.  He chairs Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee.

Murtagh, quoted by the Lansing Star, said he’s “never been more confident about the future” of New York:

“Working together, we can make New York a place where everyone has access to a living-wage job, healthcare, and an affordable place to live. We can relieve upstate residents of burdensome and regressive property taxes. We can repair the decades-old inequities in education funding to ensure that all New York’s children receive a quality education.  And in the face of a growing climate catastrophe, we can build for a green, sustainable future.”

Jason Leifer, an attorney and Dryden Supervisor since 2016, said he is seeking the Assembly post, in part, to bring to Albany what he’s learned in leading Dryden government:

“Addressing our local issues at the state level requires vision, experience, and an established record of action and success.—all of which I have,” he said. “If elected, I know I can get our State Government to listen better and work more closely with our Counties, Cities, Towns, and Villages to improve the lives of all residents.”

Leifer also said he “wants to do more to fight the opiate crisis, steering solutions away from jail and toward recovery and providing a support system for addicts.”

Lifton’s 125th District spans all of Tompkins County and the southwestern corner of Cortland County, including the City of Cortland.  Its political registration heavily favours Democrats, and no Republicans have yet declared for the office.

Kelles, Murtagh, Leifer and whoever else chooses to enter the race must circulate petitions from late-February through early April to appear on the June 23rd Democratic Primary ballot.  New York, for the first time, will permit early voting for the Primary.

Full Disclosure:  This writer, Robert Lynch, serves as a volunteer advisor to Anna Kelles’ Assembly campaign.


Tompkins logjam for legislative leader likely broken

Kelles withdraws; Black named Acting Chair; Lane likely the permanent choice

by Robert Lynch, February 7, 2020

In the midst of a snowstorm, a flurry of fast-moving political moves Friday (Feb. 7th) could hand Dryden’s Michael Lane the Tompkins County Legislature’s leadership gavel for the balance of this year.

First, County Legislator Anna Kelles, who’d tied with Lane in chairship balloting seven times since January 7th, withdrew from her county contest as she announced plans to run for the New York State Assembly.

Then, Tompkins County Clerk Maureen Reynolds, tasked by law with selecting an interim head once the leadership impasse had reached its 30-day mark, tapped Ithaca’s Shawna Black to serve as Acting Chair until the Legislature can muster at least eight votes to agree on a permanent choice.

With Kelles out of the running, most expect a majority of the 14-member Legislature to select Lane as their leader when members next convene, February 18th.

However, if the Kelles faction resists backing Lane and unifies behind another lawmaker, the deadlock could continue and Black remain in charge.

Black, a consistent Lane supporter in all seven chairship ballots that have spanned three consecutive legislative meetings this year, signaled, without mentioning Lane’s name, that she hopes the impasse will soon end.

“[O]ver the past week situations have changed and I look forward to a resolution at our February 18th meeting,” Black said in a statement released on the Tompkins County website.

Shawna Black was elected Vice Chair of the County Legislature in January 2019, after joining that body in November 2017 to fill out the remainder of the retiring Peter Stein’s term.  When elevated to Stein’s vacancy, Black had already won election for the term she now serves.

Mike Lane, a Dryden Democrat, has served in the Legislature for most of the past 26 years.  For four of those years, 2014 through 2017, Lane presided as Chair.  In 2018, Lane relinquished his leadership post to fellow Drydenite Martha Robertson, who’s led the body for the past two years.  Robertson declined to continue as Chair for the current year.

A statement that announced Kelles’ intentions to replace the retiring Barbara Lifton in the New York State Assembly also indicated that Kelles was withdrawing from the chairship race “to dedicate herself to this campaign.”  Kelles’ statement did not indicate whom the Ithaca Democrat planned to support when next the County Legislature ballots for its leader.

Shawna Black takes over, at least, temporarily, from Republican Mike Sigler, who was named Temporary Chair, usually only a ceremonial post to facilitate chairship balloting.  But when lawmakers deadlocked, Sigler stayed on, gaveling each of the past three meetings.


City, Agency Green-Light $31.5 Million Ithaca Conference Center

Closed meeting to commence talks on County risk-sharing

by Robert Lynch, February 6, 2020

With one deadline met, another one now looms, and just weeks away, as Tompkins County and Ithaca City leaders seek to cobble together a financial plan to share the risk for a new $31.5 Million Downtown Ithaca Conference Center, a project endorsed by County lawmakers Tuesday night.

Green Street: Where the Conference Center would stand

By a 4-0 vote, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) Thursday (Feb. 6th) affirmed the Conference Center’s viability and set a March 4th deadline for both the City and County to reach a memorandum of agreement “to define the roles and responsibilities for the shared financial guarantee.”  Both parties would then need to “fully execute”— presumably vote—on those agreements by March 16th.

The IURA’s action came only hours after a near-Midnight vote, also unanimous, by Ithaca’s Common Council, to “express its commitment to provide a financial guarantee for the project financing to be shared with Tompkins County throughout the life of the (30 year) lease,”

Estimates suggest that the Conference Center could require as much as $1.9 Million annually in public funds to offset its projected losses.

Wednesday’s City resolution paralleled—but was not identical to—the Tompkins County measure, submitted by Ithaca Democrat Anna Kelles, whereby the County Legislature voted “to support a portion of the City’s financial guarantee for the annual project lease payments.”

The linguistic differences must yet be resolved, including the County Resolution’s presumed more tentative, secondary role for its taxpayers’ exposure.  Yet it appears those first steps will take place behind closed doors.

IURA Director Nels Bohn confirmed Thursday that staffs from both the City and County have scheduled to meet early Monday evening, February 10th, at an unstated location.  Bohn described the session as an initial staff discussion, not open to the press or public.  But he could not be sure whether any legislators would attend.

Bohn stressed that the meeting need not be public unless a quorum—that is, a majority of either the Legislature or Common Council—was present.  County Administrator Jason Molino is expected to attend.

Wednesday’s approved City resolution committed Common Council to seek State permission to levy its first-ever City hotel room occupancy tax, tacked on to a similar tax the County already imposes.  Should the State reject the city tax, Council would, alternatively, establish through local law a tourism improvement district, its assessments likewise burdening hotel occupants.

County lawmakers, while requiring through their resolution the City’s chosen funding initiatives, also suggested the County raise its own occupancy tax an additional one per cent to help fill the gap.

Likely in an attempt to secure her measure’s passage, Kelles in her County resolution jettisoned earlier suggestions advanced by Conference Center promoters that the City and County split risks 50/50.  Revised language presumes the City would shoulder the greater burden.

But the departure from 50/50 startled some Common Council members Wednesday.

“We don’t really have an agreement with the County as to who will go first, who will go second; but there will be sharing,” responded Thomas Knipe, Ithaca’s Director for Economic Development.

Knipe cautioned that while only four of the 13 attending County legislators had voted against the Kelles resolution, at least three others voted “yes” only with reservations.

“This has to be a collaborative effort,” observed Gary Ferguson of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the non-profit group that would likely oversee the Center. Speaking of the mutual risk exposure, Ferguson said, “I think this will be a split.”

Those two March deadlines would press County lawmakers to reach agreements fast; within the “six-week” timetable that skeptical legislator Mike Lane had predicted on Tuesday.

Lane had counseled his colleagues to “slow down a little bit.” Yet he’d expected members would again be “under the gun,” sooner that they’d thought.  Many legislators had complained they’d felt rushed at meeting their initial deadline, one imposed by City officials and project developers. 

That developer, the Vecino Group, seeks to build a 12-story Green Street apartment high rise, of which the Conference Center would occupy the bottom two floors.  Vecino’s proceeding with its housing hinged upon Thursday’s commitment.

Had the City and County failed to endorse the Conference Center, the IURA would have scrubbed the Center from Vecino’s plans, concluding that it “contains too many unresolved issues and lacks sufficient commitments to confidently secure project financing.”

As occurred the previous night with County lawmakers, supporters of the Ithaca hotel and retail communities trooped before Common Council Wednesday to voice their support.  Hotel managers said the Conference Center’s patrons would help cure their troubling slump in mid-week occupancies.

But Alderperson Donna Fleming lamented the hotels can’t get their messages straight, and she was “not persuaded” by their pleas of hardship. 

When they seek our approvals, Fleming recalled, these new hotels have assured Council that their “financials” are strong.  “But now,” she added, “they say business is slow.”

Nonetheless, Fleming, and each of her nine Common Council colleagues, voted to invite the Conference Center to join the downtown mix.


Despite rural jitters, Tompkins lawmakers back Downtown Conference Center

by Robert Lynch, February 5, 2020

“I’d like to say, let’s slow down a little bit,” cautioned Dryden’s Mike Lane.

But Lane’s colleagues on the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday night (Feb. 4th) declined to take his advice.

Ithaca’s Green Street Garage; site of the proposed Community Conference Center

By a vote of nine-to-four (member Leslyn McBean-Clairborne was excused), county lawmakers endorsed, in concept, a proposed $31.5 Million “Community Conference Center,” for downtown Ithaca, and set into motion discussions toward using county money—potentially tax dollars—to prop it up.

The Conference Center, promoted heavily by Ithaca hotel, restaurant, and downtown development interests, would occupy the bottom two floors of a new 12-story apartment high-rise, proposed by the Vecino Group, a building that would replace Ithaca’s Green Street parking garage.

The three-page resolution, unveiled and submitted Tuesday by Ithaca legislator Anna Kelles, bore the title of a “conceptual fiscal commitment.”  It carried with it no firm figures or financial promises. But it pledged that the Legislature “supports the development of a Community Conference Center,” providing the City of Ithaca also joins in the effort, including the City’s imposing its own hotel room occupancy tax, or a tourism improvement district (TID) downtown.

“This is really a resolution to let the process continue,” Kelles said, framing the issue.

Yet the ensuing hour-long legislative debate of Kelles’ resolution carved a distinct urban-rural divide, with those farther removed from downtown asking Conference Center supporters, “What’s in it for us?”

“I don’t really feel like it’s something the County needs to get involved with,” voiced Ithaca Town legislator Amanda Champion.  “I don’t necessarily agree that people who come to a conference in Downtown Ithaca are going to be going to Groton, are going to be going to Enfield, are going to be going to Newfield.”

Kelles acknowledged that conferees would likely not venture to those more rural venues.  But she argued that all county residents would benefit from the increased room, sales, and property tax revenues that the Conference Center might generate.

Yet while most Center supporters, including Kelles, predicted that any so-called “backstop” revenues would come from visitors, others cautioned the local taxpayer always stands as the funder of last resort.

“It doesn’t say that we’ll only use hotel tax money,” cautioned Danby/Caroline legislator Dan Klein, referring to Kelles’ resolution.  “It does not say that because it cannot say that, because we don’t know what the hotel tax revenues will be in any one year.”

Klein also noted that the hotels, themselves “don’t actually have a financial stake in this.”  He said the cost of either a City room tax or a tourism assessment would fall on the hotel patron, not the hotel owner.

Both Klein and Champion voted against the Kelles’ Resolution, along with Groton’s Glenn Morey, and the Ithaca City’s Henry Granison.

Enfield’s two County Legislators, Anne Koreman and David McKenna, each backed the resolution.

Lansing’s Deborah Dawson supported the measure, albeit reluctantly.

“I’m committing hotel tax money to this and nothing more,” warned Dawson, indicating her support would end if local taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

‘Taxes are taxes, though,” responded fellow supporter Rich John.  Any final commitment, John cautioned, would “put our full faith and credit into the mix.”

Dryden’s Michael Lane also voted for the resolution, after having lost a motion to table it.  Yet Lane said he’s “been struggling” with the issue.

“We’ve heard this backstop word,” Lane remarked.  “I hate that euphemism.  It’s not a backstop.  It’s a financial guarantee,” he clarified, adding:

“I keep in my mind saying, why isn’t the City the backstop?  Why do they need us at all?  Is it just to put the County’s taxpayers on the hook?”

Taking a more optimistic view, however, Lane’s Dryden colleague, Martha Robertson, predicted the Conference Center could “transform downtown; transform the whole community.” 

“This is a generational moment,” Robertson said. “This is really the time for this to happen.”

In presentations to a legislative committee meeting January 23rd, Center promoters alluded to a 50/50 City-County split in funding guarantees.  But Tuesday’s Resolution backed away from an equally-shared obligation.  Resolution language suggested, instead, that the City would shoulder losses first, the County only thereafter.

At the January committee session, Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the non-profit group that may run the Center, acknowledged that over 90 per cent of conference centers lose money.  Tuesday night, yearly shortfalls of as high as $1.9 million were suggested, though Ferguson had earlier predicted a maximum combined annual government exposure of much less, perhaps $800,000.

Tuesday’s Legislature discussion followed public endorsements of the proposal from as many as a dozen persons, each speaking before a packed gallery of spectators.  Most speakers identified themselves as with the hospitality and downtown retail community.

Among them was long-time developer Mack Travis, who spoke with pride about how the local community has “bootstrapped our way up” over the years.

The Center’s finances “make you a little nervous,” Travis acknowledged. “But if you don’t risk, you don’t grow.”

Ithaca City Alderperson George McGonigal, in his own moments on the floor, had a different take.

McGonigal, whose Common Council is also being asked to endorse the Center, noted that the State has jumped-started the project with a $5 Million grant.

“It’s enough to get things on the table,” the First Ward lawmaker acknowledged.  But by funding just 20 per cent of the cost, “It may also be enough to get us in serious trouble.”


Take Three:  County Legislature still deadlocked on picking a Chair

by Robert Lynch, February 4, 2020

For the third consecutive meeting—and now, on the sixth and seventh successive ballots—the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday (Feb. 4th) deadlocked in selecting its permanent Chair for 2020.

At the end of a more than four-hour meeting, the Legislature, dominated by Democrats, failed to muster the required eight votes for either Dryden’s Michael Lane of Ithaca’s Anna Kelles, the two Democrats who’ve split ballots between them five times previously; four times at an organizational meeting January 7th; and then once at the lawmakers’ later session, January 21st.

The only difference at this Tuesday night’s meeting was the tally.  All previous ballots had ended in a 7-7 tie.  With Democrat Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, a Kelles supporter, absent Tuesday, the latest votes fell seven to six in Lane’s favor, yet still one vote short of the needed majority.

The continued deadlock sets the stage for the County Clerk’s intervention.  The Legislature’s Charter dictates that after 30 days of indecision, the Clerk, Maureen Reynolds, exercises her right to select an Acting Chair, who’d replace the Temporary Chair, Mike Sigler, the Republican who’s presided over the last three meetings.

“You’ve done a very fair and entertaining job,” last year’s Chair, Democrat Martha Robertson, said in commending Sigler.   Robertson joked that if the Lansing lawmaker wanted to change party registrations, he might be able to keep his job.

County Clerk Reynolds has not indicated whom she’d pick to lead the Legislature, potentially for the balance of the year.  The 30-day calendar of indecision ends this Thursday (February 6th).  Reynolds would likely exercise her option on Friday.

As outlined to the Legislature by County Attorney Jonathan Woods, a meeting-by-meeting revote for permanent Chair would, after Reynolds’ action, no longer be automatic, as it has been these past three meetings.  Instead, with an Acting Chair in place, the permanent Chair’s election would have to be introduced for a specific meeting, and potentially travel through committee first.  The Clerk’s appointee, said Woods, would serve “unless and until” lawmakers can agree—with at least eight votes out of 14—on their permanent choice.

Aside from Tuesday’s absence of McBean-Clairborne, each of the past seven ballots have seen the same hands raised for each candidate.  Of the legislators representing Enfield, Anne Koreman has voted for Lane, David McKenna for Kelles.