Deidra’s Firing Returns to the Legislature
[And Posted After: Enfield Apps. on the Edge; the Scramble for County Cash]
by Robert Lynch, November 18, 2022
Rordangate—yes, this writer’s term, and the name by which many around Trumansburg, we’re advised, now call this controversy—roared back into the Tompkins County’s Legislature’s chambers November 15th But the roar lasted for only three minutes. And the meeting’s Chair made certain it would not last for even one second more.
Rocco Lucente, the Ithaca builder and conservative activist whose interview allegedly prompted reporter Deidra Cross’s firing last summer, zoomed in at the start of the Legislature’s biweekly meeting and promptly launched into a blistering, staccato-paced critique of the Legislature in general, legislator Veronica Pillar in particular, and the County’s Director of Communications, Dominick Recckio, only by inference. You never saw Rocco’s face. But you could not have avoided Lucente’s voice… or his vitriol.
“We now live in a county where employees pressure publications to fire people for the crime of covering an activist with an opposing view, and County legislators support it,” Lucente scolded lawmakers. “I condemn County leadership for their defense of this heinous conduct—.”
“You’re done. Thank you. Anyone else here for public comment this evening?” a visibly shaken and audibly incensed Legislature Chair Shawna Black shouted into the room as she cut Lucente mic upon his final, 180th second of allowed privilege. For a brief moment, the room fell silent. Then the meeting resumed. No one talked further of the exchange.
And since Veronica Pillar had arrived late, taking her seat in the midst of Lucente’s rant, one would need to ask whether she, the prime target of Rocco’s rage, ever knew in real time what had just happened. Without a doubt, she knows by now.
“Veronica Pillar blatantly libeled me with several false, defamatory statements,” Rocco Lucente railed. “She called me a white supremacist, accused me of Alt-Right rhetoric, and displaying hate symbols. She claimed that I do not recognize people’s humanity. All of these claims are vicious lies.”
Freshman legislator Pillar drew Lucente’s ire for her own floor statements made two weeks earlier. At the Legislature’s November 1st meeting, the left-of-center Ithaca City representative commended government employees like Communications Director Recckio for taking the initiative to “push back and shut down” what she then termed “harmful, Alt-Right rhetoric,” as well as criticism that fails to “recognize everyone’s humanity.”
For the record, during her comments that earlier night, Pillar had never mentioned Rocco Lucente by name.
The Rordangate controversy began last April when reporter Cross interviewed Lucente about his pro-Trump activism, Cross then an employee of the print and online publication, Tompkins Weekly. After the Lucente story ran—and as revealed through a subsequent FOIL disclosure—Recckio contacted Tompkins Weekly’s editor to express his concerns about criticisms Lucente had made.
Then, in August, after Cross subsequently interviewed Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart and Hart had expressed his own opinions critical of the Ithaca City-Tompkins County Reimagining Public Safety collaborative, Recckio complained again. And after this second complaint, Tompkins Weekly fired Deidra Cross.
Tompkins County’s government-paid attorney in September cleared Recckio of any ethical wrongdoing. Tompkins Weekly has put distance between the Communications Director’s comments and the reporter’s firing. Yet at the November 1st session, Republican legislator Mike Sigler called for an outside counsel to investigate the matter. And Deidra Cross, for her part, has threatened to sue just about everyone.
Yet, Lucente’s Tuesday night monologue targeted legislator Pillar for its harshest rebuke. Lucente referenced the then-private citizen’s alleged participation as a purported member of Ithaca’s Democratic Socialists of America in an October 16, 2020 standoff with Donald Trump supporters at local Republican Headquarters on Ithaca’s Meadow Street. In the incident, some campaign paraphernalia was burned, and according to Lucente, two women received minor injuries.
Media reports at the time cited Lucente as one organizer of the Trump side of the dueling demonstrations. Those reports neither quote nor picture Pillar as a participant.
“Make no mistake about it. The Ithaca Trump Rally Riot was our January 6th, and Veronica Pillar was the guy outside standing at the guillotine yelling ‘Hang Mike Pence,’” Lucente alleged in his statement to the Legislature. “Her rhetoric is designed to silence those who disagree with her, to motivate violence against them. That is exactly what it has done when conservatives have attempted to peacefully gather in our area,” Lucente continued.
But only when Lucente veered away from Pillar’s alleged conduct and focused his attack on Recckio’s actions in allegedly influencing Tompkins Weekly’s coverage, did Shawna Black intervene. Black reprimanded the Republican activist for his ever-so-close-to-the-line prohibited criticism of a named County employee. Lucente carefully had never referenced the Communications Director by name or by title.
“Bigotry against those who disagree with Democrats has become the norm,” Lucente stated midway through his critique. “The individual consequences against those who dare speak out in favor of conservative values has become the standard. This is why Deidra Cross was fired at the direction of the County. This is why your employee libeled me in an email to Tompkins Weekly. And this is why Veronica Pillar deployed vicious lies designed to motivate violence against me and people like me.”
Shortly thereafter, Shawna Black interrupted. “You’re coming close to the line about speaking with (sic) our County employees,” the Legislature’s Chair warned.
“You’re taking up my time, and I didn’t mention an employee, so I don’t appreciate interruption,” Lucente fired back to the presiding officer.
The conservative firebrand said a sentence or two more. But soon his time ran out and Shawna Black shut him down. It marked the end of Tuesday’s wake-me-up, three minute moment.
The remainder of the Legislature’s November 15th meeting proved bland by comparison.
The Budget: By a 12-1 vote, legislators adopted Tompkins County’s more than $200 Million 2023 Budget. Thanks to prior committee tinkering, the budget’s tax levy remains unchanged from that of the current year. And while the tax rate will fall, local spending will rise by nearly 6.7 per cent. Inflation-driven property assessments over the year will in many instances increase the bite on the average homeowner, but only slightly.
“I can’t support this budget,” Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson said in casting her lone dissenting vote. “After staff started to whittle down (the County’s oversized) fund balance judiciously,” said Dawson, “we just piled on.”
“There were a lot of ‘Christmas Tree Ornaments,’” Dawson complained, punctuating her words with flippant hand and facial gestures.
“I like this program; give me some money,” Dawson mocked her colleagues, accusing many for bending the budget to suit their own fancy. “And I have a problem with doing that,” she concluded.
“I don’t think there’s a person here who’s totally happy with all aspects of the budget,” Dryden’s Mike Lane admitted before casting his supportive vote. “But when you design a horse by committee, you may not get the tail in the right place.” Still, Lane added, “We did a good job.”
The Newspaper: Exercising its annual vote of frustration at the Gannett Press for its never-more covering local news, the Legislature grudgingly once again designated The Ithaca Journal, the only qualifying local daily, as its official newspaper for publishing legal notices.
But this year, the action brought a twist. On its first round ballot, and with one legislative seat vacant, only seven voted to designate the paper. That’s one vote shy of a true majority.
“I’d kinda’ would like to see what the state does to us,” Mike Sigler, the Journal’s perpetual critic, said. He suggested the County Legislature call Albany’s bluff and refuse to fulfill its legal obligation.
Cooler heads then prevailed. The Legislature reconsidered and designated The Journal by a 10 to 3 vote.
Enfield Apps. on the Edge
Pantry comes up short in county’s first-round review
by Robert Lynch, November 17, 2022
“It’s something, I hope, we can come back to knowing that our non-profits need structural help, but not under this program.”
Groton’s Lee Shurtleff drew a bright line against bricks-and-mortar. And because of that insistence, Shurtleff joined in a four-vote-to-two committee recommendation Tuesday to reject the ambitious request by Enfield Food Distribution (EFD) for moneys under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund to replace EFD’s aged and undersized Food Pantry on the first floor of the Enfield Courthouse.
EFD’s $1.66 Million request is reportedly the largest single qualifying application of the 211 received countywide seeking a chunk of the $6.5 Million Tompkins County seeks to distribute to agencies, businesses and local governments as pass-through appropriations from the federal American Rescue Plan. Tompkins County received requests seeking five times the amount of money it has available to give.
Tuesday’s initial rejection of the Enfield Food Pantry’s request stands as only the first of several votes. The six-member legislative committee will revisit its initial funding recommendations as soon as November 21st. Final decisions rest with the full 13-member County Legislature. Its members will likely pick winners and losers in December.
But overall, Tuesday was not a good day for Enfield applicants. During its fast-paced battery of votes, recommendations often made without discussion of an application’s particularized merits, the Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee voted 5-1 in each instance against the Town of Enfield’s own trio of requests, including its “Main Street Revitalization Project.” The committee split 3-3 on the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company’s consolidated application, which would include money to construct a volunteer “bunk room” and to buy training apparatus.
The only Enfield application to secure majority committee support Tuesday was the Enfield Community Council’s $206,000 request to replace a water-damaged modular add-on at its new Community Center with a permanent “Mental Health and Community Services Wing.” Without discussion, ECC’s application passed four votes to two. Nonetheless, the committee may later shave money from the Council’s request.
“We all agreed that these are all good projects,” Committee Chair Dan Klein acknowledged as the Enfield Pantry’s big-dollar appeal came up for review. “We wish we could fund them all. We must cut 80 percent,”
Aided by a consultant’s scorecard, Tuesday’s meeting took the form of a first-round triage. “We don’t ask questions today,” Klein lectured committee colleagues at the meeting’s start. “The bigger questions we don’t have time for.”
Indeed, efficiency ruled the moment. The committee rendered its opinion on as many as 141 funding requests within a three hour span. It will take up the remaining 69 applications next Monday. Each of those remaining 69 falls into the smallest of three funding categories, with applicants seeking $25,000 or less.
Despite its down-to-business approach to an application pile ready to tip over, as well as a discomforting voting procedure that placed expediency over finality, Tuesday’s meeting was not without its dramatic moments.
Most notably, near the session’s start, Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson and Enfield-Ulysses legislator Anne Koreman, usually political allies, sparred over to what extent members should place their own personal priorities over the program’s earlier-established funding guidelines.
“I think we should be held to a higher standard and not vote personal priorities,” Koreman told committee members. “We should stick more with the program priorities and judge applicants on their merits.”
“The present priorities are pretty broad,” Dawson countered. To Dawson, priorities rising to her highest importance are those that address “long-term critical needs and identified gaps in local services,” like child care, affordable housing, broadband, and climate change.
“We may have different ideas about what’s important,” Dawson asserted, at that point targeting her words directly at Koreman. “But don’t suggest, as you have, that if somebody doesn’t view it your way they are acting unethically. That’s really crappy.”
“I didn’t say that,” Koreman rebutted, seeking to clarify.
“That’s the implication,” Dawson muttered under her breath.
For her part, Koreman voted to support the vast majority of funding requests, including each of those affecting Enfield. Indeed, Koreman supplied the lone affirmative vote on each of Enfield’s municipal funding requests.
As for Enfield Food Distribution’s endangered application, not only may its fund-depleting dollar amount have brought it an unexpectedly low score, but so may have its quest for construction moneys, as opposed to those for more intangible soft-dollar program subsidies that many on the Advisory Committee—or perhaps its consultants—seemed to favor.
“We believe in the merit of all these applications,” Groton’s Shurtleff acknowledged, prior to voting his opposition to EFD’s funding. “But you will find me voting ‘No’ on almost all of these that involve any construction.”
Given majority opposition to the Pantry’s request—EFD has allowed it could accept as little as $1.2 Million and still move forward—one should question whether the committee will even reconsider EFD’s application during its subsequent second-round review. Among the 21 top-dollar applications asking for $250,000 or more, EFD’s sits alongside proposals that secured far-better, if not unanimous committee approval.
Supported top-tier proposals include those of Sustainable Finger Lakes to retrofit mobile homes with heat pumps (6-0 approval), the Human Services Coalition for homelessness assistance (6-0 vote), and a $1.5 Million request by seemingly-flush Cayuga Medical Center for an “Intensive Crisis Stabilization Center” (5-1 support). CMC supposedly claims it could not proceed with the center without full-dollar funding.
The committee ended Tuesday’s meeting a bit undecided as to how it would make further cuts. Chair Klein closed the meeting suggesting that each of the six committee members might “put out a top-20 or top-30 list.” Or, he said, a committee subset could assemble “a package to put before the whole committee.” The process quite obviously remains unstructured. And of course, the full Legislature could eventually upend the committee’s preferences.
Later Tuesday, before the full County Legislature, Klein reported that the committee’s first-round triage had trimmed away as much as 60 per cent of the 80 percent reduction in funding requests needed to be made. But Klein did not clarify as to whether the reduced amount only included those requests which received a majority vote, namely of 4-2 or better. If that’s the case, for Enfield, only the ECC request would remain in the running.
What about proposals, like the Enfield Fire Company’s, where the committee split 3-3? Klein said at one point to the committee regarding its split votes, “Technically, they did not pass. So we have to sort through them one more time. They can be brought up again…. I assume we’re going to look at the ones that have a lot of support. They don’t disappear.”
But the daunting task of culling out the “good” applications from the “truly great” ones appeared to bewilder the Advisory Committee during its assembly line review. Votes sometimes defied reason to the objective, outside observer. Explanations proved few. Without having a scorecard in hand from the County’s paid consultants, decisions, at times, became arbitrary.
Legislator Koreman initially hesitated even to vote on the 120 mid-range applications, stating she’d only received the consultants’ report on Sunday night, some 36 hours earlier. But Klein forced the voting anyway, fearing delay could push final decisions into January.
With just its first round finished, and all 13 legislators holding the final decision, there’s a danger in inserting too much certainty into the committee process at this early point. A majority of lawmakers have yet to weigh in. And public pressure from disgruntled losers could measurably alter the outcome.
Yet, with so much money to cut, committee members found it easier Tuesday just to say “no” than to affirm questionable spending.
“If I start voting ‘yes’ on projects involving construction,” Shurtleff said, referring to the Pantry project, “we’re going to be worn out pretty quick.”
Given that attitude, it may take a miracle to secure Community Recovery Fund money for a new Enfield Food Pantry. Same goes for the Enfield Fire Company bunk room, if not the ECC’s addition as well.
Too many requests for too little money. Perhaps, lobbyists rule. They often do. Stay tuned.