Randy Brown makes his mark defending hometown interests
Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch, January 4, 2023
Republican Randy Brown beat me in the 2021 race for the Tompkins County Legislature. He also beat Democratic nominee Vanessa Greenlee. Strange as it may seem, in both instances, even in my own, I’m glad Brown won. What I’ll write next will tell you why.
As much as I, myself, might have been—and most assuredly, he’s been so far more tactfully—Randy Brown has become a maverick; the County Legislature’s fiercest defender of the needs and desires of the specific corner of Tompkins County that he represents. In Randy’s case, it’s the towns of Enfield and Newfield. In the role he’s chosen for himself, Randy Brown stands apart. True, he runs the risk of becoming an outcast. And some have derided his approach as being too “parochial.” But no doubt, if asked, Randy Brown would double-down on his conviction. He’d tell you he’s only doing what he was elected to do. And I agree.
At the County Legislature’s first meeting of 2023, the one this past Tuesday night, an organizational session at which leaders are anointed but little else gets done, Randy Brown made it clear he had not forgotten December 20th; the night of the Legislature’s previous meeting. It was the meeting during which every other County lawmaker voted in favor of parceling out more than six million dollars of federal pass-through moneys to more than four dozen commercial, governmental, and non-profit applicants. Yet not a single dollar of that Community Recovery Fund went to any applicant from Enfield. Randy Brown has a problem with that.
“Ultimately, I represent the people in my district, in Newfield-Enfield, and I really struggle with; why am I here?” Brown asked rhetorically as he exercised his privilege-of-the-floor opportunity Tuesday. “It’s a complete failure on my part that they got nothing,” Brown said. “Enfield got nothing. It’s my failure. It’s our failure.”
Then Brown pivoted to the plight of his home community of Newfield, for which the Recovery Fund Advisory Committee—and subsequently the full Legislature—denied Newfield’s biggest municipal reach, $250,000 to underwrite a Town and school district collaborative for “Creating Community Spaces,” upgrading recreation facilities.
“Newfield, in their mind, got kicked in the teeth in the process,” Brown said.
What’s more, the only big money application the Advisory Committee targeted to fund in Newfield was one that many community leaders have strongly opposed. It’s the half-Million dollar request by Second Wind Cottages to build campsites for the homeless in a field behind Guidi’s Collision Shop. The project’s still pending. And many in Newfield fear it will only serve to transport Ithaca’s homelessness problem to their own, ill-equipped hamlet.
Several advocates spoke before the County Legislature Tuesday in favor of Second Wind’s yet-to-be-decided application. But before the Legislature provides it funding, Second Wind must survive a grueling environmental review, one in which Newfield’s own leaders may take the lead. The review could spell deep trouble for Second Wind.
Enfield applicants that have so far been snubbed by the Advisory Committee, and subsequently by the full Legislature, include the Enfield Community Council, whose $206,000 request slipped just five notches below the committee’s cut. The Enfield Volunteer Fire Company also sought money, as did the Enfield Food Pantry, whose $1.66 Million maximum ask became the Recovery Fund’s most expensive item. The pantry never got beyond first-round committee review.
“I’m going to look at legislators differently that voted against Newfield,” Brown cautioned colleagues Tuesday. He put anti-Enfield sentiment in that same, always-be-skeptical category.
And though some may have overlooked it, Brown had already put his words into action that night. When the name of Recovery Fund Advisory Committee Chair Dan Klein was placed in nomination to become Vice-Chair of the Legislature, Brown quietly raised his hand in opposition to Klein’s promotion. Brown was the only legislator shown to object, though he spoke nothing about his vote, nor did he offer an alternative candidate before he voted. Clearly between the two lawmakers, bad blood flows.
During Tuesday’s floor privileges, Randy Brown repeated his argument that the six-legislator Advisory Committee held too much power when it apportioned Recovery Fund moneys. And he believes that the entire County Legislature accorded the committee too much deference in ratifying its recommendations last month without a single change.
“I received over 25 emails and phone calls since the vote on the 20th,” Brown said, “and none of them were good.” (Full disclosure: this writer-Councilperson was among those who emailed legislator Brown.)
“People are so disappointed,” Brown continued. “And some of them feel they were disregarded completely.” Then the District-8 GOP freshman legislator took his grievance one step further:
“And that really goes to this history of how Enfield-Newfield feels,” Brown observed. “This isn’t just this ARPA thing,” referencing the federal funding pot from which Community Recovery funds are drawn. “No, they feel and I feel that the County has not really considered Newfield and Enfield. And maybe other people feel that way as well.”
Randy Brown’s status as his district’s front-line defender did not go unchallenged Tuesday. And the strongest counterpoint came from the Advisory Committee chair he’d voted against, Danby’s Dan Klein.
“We did not take geography into account,” Klein insisted regarding his committee’s selection of winning Recovery Fund applicants. In terms of Enfield and Newfield, he said, “We do not ignore these towns (or) any towns. We represent the entire county, and serve the entire county, and we look for opportunities to do things in any community that needs assistance, needs some services, and that falls within the parameters of what we can do.”
Klein reiterated his previous claim that not only did Enfield lose out on funding; but so did Groton and his home turf of Danby. Of course a critic might point the blame for those towns’ losses at their own representatives, like Klein, who failed to patch local potholes first.
The Advisory Committee Chair also claimed that approximately 40 per cent of Recovery funds went to agencies that lacked a geographic base. He rattled off as many as seven such grant recipients, ranging from Suicide Prevention to TC3. But in all but two instances when Klein pointed out that the agencies still serve Newfield, he failed to mention that they serve Enfield as well.
Before he had ended his rebuttal, and with a discernable bite in his voice, Dan Klein took his argument directly to Brown. He specifically cited a 2021 decision that had earmarked countywide money to fund a broadband extension in Newfield, a subsidy that brought high-speed Internet to 175 homes.
“If you’re going to say that the Town of Newfield is disregarded,” Klein needled Brown, “can you at least subtract 175 households, please.”
Clearly, though the two men’s districts touch each other, there’s no love lost between Randy Brown and Dan Klein.
And the “county interests come first” argument, advanced by Klein, resonated with others.
“I wanted to commend Dan for pointing out that a lot of the grants that we gave while they’re not specifically targeted towards particular towns and villages, they do serve the entire county,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson, who sat with Klein on the Advisory Committee, stated in affirmation.
“And I want to caution my colleagues not to be tremendously parochial in their voting,” Dawson warned. She claimed that the villages she represents, Cayuga Heights and Lansing, received no awards from the Community Recovery Fund, either.
Yet understand the difference: Dawson’s two villages, according to the U.S. Census, lie within the Ithaca Urbanized Area. The Towns of Enfield and Newfield do not.
“Randy, I hear you,” the Ithaca City’s Rich John acknowledged, “and I understand you’re reflecting the views of people in your community, and you’re supposed to do that.” Yet John joined Klein and Dawson in stressing the need for a county-wide vision.
“I represent a City district,” John stated. “But I’m here because we are one county. And it’s always important to look at your district, but you also have to look at the whole county.”
Rich John pointed to the Legislature’s inclusion in the 2023 budget of more than $100,000 to lay the groundwork for an EMS “flycar” service, one whose beneficiaries are primarily rural.
“It hurts me to hear the message that people think that the rural areas are totally ignored,” Rich John told Brown. “I really think that we need to look at things as a whole community, a whole county.”
The Town of Enfield’s second County legislator, Anne Koreman, was among those who sat on the Advisory Committee. Though she initially supported many of Enfield’s applications, she later endorsed the committee’s final recommendation both in the committee and on the Legislature’s floor. Koreman has voiced greater support for the final funding decisions than has Brown. And she opposed nearly all efforts on December 20th to amend the recommendations and cut funding to other programs so as to potentially enable an Enfield applicant to slip-in under the wire.
“We did the best we could,” Koreman reflected Tuesday regarding the committee’s past deliberations, a task she described as “challenging.”
“We could go back and second-guess a lot of different things,” Koreman acknowledged. “And could we do more in the community? Sure, there’s always more to do.”
But for the moment, the Ulysses Democrat said it’s best to leave the funding decisions where they stand, identify “some gaps,” that need filling, and fill those gaps from other funding sources.
When Republican Randy Brown campaigned for County Legislature in 2021, legislators Klein, Koreman, and Dawson were among a group of five who banded together and endorsed Democrat Vanessa Greenlee for the seat, first in the Democratic Primary against me; and later, in November, against Brown. Had Greenlee won the General Election, one can imagine a much different personality in the District 8 seat, and a less confrontational response to the funding disappointments that Enfield and Newfield have now suffered. Party loyalty and personal camaraderie would likely have dissuaded Greenlee from raising the pointed complaints that Randy Brown now feels free to field. She would have deferred to the friendly faces who’d endorsed her. She would have gone along to get along. My assumption alone; no one else’s.
Election outcomes do matter. And in Randy Brown’s case, it has.