LISTEN: Conversation with Ward 3 Common Council Candidates

WRFI Community Radio and The Ithaca Voice are bringing you conversations with candidates in the 4 contested Common Council primary races.

WRFI's Celia Clarke and Matt Butler Editor-in-Chief of The Ithaca Voice conducted the interview. The Ward Three candidates are: Nathan Sitaraman, Dave Shapiro, and Pierre Saint-Perez.

The Ward includes South Hill and Belle Sherman.

Transcript thanks to the Ithaca Voice. Read more Ward Three coverage at the Voice.

First question is, why do you think the approach taken over the last five to 10 years has been ineffective at stopping rent climbs in the city? Does it need more? Time or do you think it needs to change?

David Shapiro (DS): Well, thank you, Matt. I think the approach over the last 10 years has been to encourage as much development as possible, using tax abatements to often encourage property developers to build some of the largest buildings in town. I think that’s been effective at doing one thing, and that’s been bringing really a lot of new high-priced apartments into our community. So it hasn’t been effective, in the grand scheme of things, as what they promised in the original bill, when they changed the zoning. Which was that if we were to change the zoning that way and have all this other housing get developed, eventually it would just trickle down. It was almost like it sounded like a Republican, trickle-down economics. I heard Seph [Murtagh] even refer to it that way recently as like, trickle-down housing. That just hasn’t happened because for most property developers, they’re not really interested in figuring out how to provide supports around supportive housing, or how to keep how to just take less in their pocket and provide affordability by asking for less. Or all the other different reasons that property developers aren’t interested and in changing that, I think there’s one in town recently. I think Vecino [developer of low-income projects Arthaus and Asteri Ithaca] has recently come in and they’ve figured out how to write grants to bring in affordable housing. And I think, if we’re going to continue to encourage that type of development, we really want to have partners that are interested in bringing in the mixed use type of housing we need.

Nathan Sitaraman (NS): So yeah, definitely agree that there’s been a lot of housing built that’s been geared towards people at a price point much higher than the median Ithacan, and the trickle-down economics of that isn’t really working out. Location-wise, I think we also need to be more creative in creating housing that’s in good proximity to schools for people, and that sort of thing as well. We need to look at Cornell as a potential developer. They probably have more capacity to build low-income housing than anyone else, and I appreciate what they’ve done to try to have freshmen and sophomores living on campus, but having appealing options for upperclassmen wanting to live on campus is important too, and that would also ease the strain on our neighborhoods. On the other end of things, I also support the Emergency Tenants Protection Act, which would limit rent increases in buildings with six or more occupants built before 1974. That would particularly have an effect in areas like West Village and other such communities of Ithaca where people are really struggling with the increasing cost of living with wages increasing relatively little over that last five to 10 year period, compared to how rent has gone up. So also looking at approaches like that as well.

Pierre Saint-Perez (PSP): You know, I remember being in a county meeting trying to address housing in our area in 2017. We came up with this whole set of plans and strategies and we talked about what would happen if we didn’t manage to build enough housing in our greater community and I’m not just talking about the city of Ithaca. In our greater community, we’re seeing those effects happening today. We have not successfully met the demands of the fact that our community is, whether we like it or not, growing because people want to be a part of it, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We need to encourage people who want to be a part of this wonderful community to come here and make it possible for them to, but that’s not a burden that the city can shoulder alone. We need to collaborate and work with adjoining municipalities more effectively, and our entire greater area, the side effects of our housing policy, extend all the way into adjoining counties.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about how much Cornell pays to the city because so much of the property is tax-exempt. What would you like the financial relationship between the city and Cornell to look like? 

PSP: So Cornell and the city of Ithaca and our entire community in Ithaca exist in a form of symbiosis, we are an ecosystem together. Cornell brings a lot of students, a lot of wealth, a lot of jobs into our community, but Ithaca also provides a lot for Cornell; we provide a community that people want to be a part of. And that community is right now struggling. It would be possible for Cornell to, with very little effort on their part, comparative to the scale of Cornell as an institution, really support our community and support making sure that that community is one that exists in that equilibrium, in that ecosystem. Right now our ecosystem, our local ecosystem is out of balance and I see more contribution by Cornell as bringing our ecosystem back into a better balance.

NS: I think Ithaca, like Pierre said, provides a community for Cornell. But even more than that, it provides the workforce for Cornell and it’s provided a workforce over time, over decades, over more than 100 years, it’s all of Cornell success and it’s fortunate and everything. A lot of it ultimately draws back to the hard work of Ithacans and that hard work that continues today on a day-to-day basis that maintains Cornell’s operations, and so all of that great wealth and that success in that great work that’s happening up at Cornell, some of that needs to come back down into the [city] of Ithaca and be used to support initiatives here and help the community here because these people in this community is what made Cornell great and what continues to make Cornell great, and the city deserves to see those fruits and that wealth, return to it and help address some of the problems that the city has with housing and systemic inequality. Those are problems Cornell should take an interest in.

DS: I’d like to echo, I suppose, some of the things that have been said already, but I maybe want to put them into different context. Cornell currently voluntarily contributes what they do to the city, and it’s been a great contribution that was negotiated many, many years ago, but it hasn’t kept up with the times. But it is still a voluntary contribution. So when I think about how to engage that entity so that they can provide more to the community, I think about a lot of the different ways I’ve been successful as a fundraiser in the past. And often you’re thinking about, why are these people contributing? And Cornell, of course, is contributing because they care about this community, but they’re contributing also to things that are important to their workers, important to their students. Important to the people affiliated with their Cornell community. So I think when you’re making a pitch to Cornell and how they continue to participate voluntarily in contributing to the city, I think there very much has to be a strategic decision where you’re bringing up things that are of real importance to them, so that they could buy in because ultimately, even the most generous fundraisers, they’re buying into your vision, they’re buying into what it is that you’re selling them, even if it’s a voluntary gift. I think echoing some of the other thoughts about like, into the town. I think a lot of what Cornell owns is in the city of Ithaca, but they own a lot of housing in the town of Ithaca. And I think there needs to be also a bigger approach at talking to Cornell about what they own, who they should be donating that land back to and how that could be turned into affordable housing in the town of Ithaca.

As it has now been publicly presented, do you like the Reimagining Public Safety plan? Why or why not? And then the sub-question is, what should the Ithaca Police Department look like in three years in your mind?

NS: So I think there are a lot of good aspects to the Reimagining Public Safety plan including creating positions of unarmed responders, which would help take some of the load off of the police force and also likely be more effective in serving certain parts of the community. I think that’s a really important step. As I understand it, that’s sort of limited in scope in the current plan and involves not necessarily replacing armed officers but just having an additional force of unarmed officers. But I think the evidence points to a lot of the work that is currently done by armed police officers could be reallocated to unarmed response, and I’d like to be part of a movement to push that process forward and have a department that includes both armed and unarmed responders, focusing on, over time, having a greater share of the work done by unarmed responders, especially if we can do things like create more housing stability and job stability, they’re naturally going to create more stable, safe communities. Moving forward with that mindset and trying to have more of what is traditionally seen as policing work done by unarmed responders instead.

PSP: So I really appreciate the whole process that we have as a community gone through over the past couple of years, trying to figure out what public safety really looks like for our communities. And I think that process is still continuing. I think that we have a plan. We are trying this plan out; we’re seeing what works and what doesn’t. I think, to the question of three years in the future, we can’t know because we’re not going to know for at least a bit, which parts of our current plan work, which parts don’t, what we should invest more in, it might be unarmed officers, it might be other forms of public safety. We’ll see what works and what makes sure that people are safe and feel safe, and I think that’s okay. We are a small government. We are a city government and we are nimble enough to adjust to the needs of our community as they change, evolve or are revealed.

DS: If you don’t mind, I’d like to answer the second part first. But it’s hard to even think about what the department is going to look like in three years. I can tell you a little bit about how I think it should look. But first I want to talk about what the plan really talked about that they’ve moved forward with: hiring a city manager and having that person be responsible for rolling out what I would consider the meat of the plan, because right now, what’s part of that plan? A lot of the training and accountability measures. They’re ‘of course’ kind of things, but they’re not groundbreaking things. Having a whistleblower policy for instance, is and ‘of course,’ but what they need is a city manager and which they haven’t started that process for they need Deputy City Manager I think it might be part of that plan as well. And they need a [police chief], a captain of the force and they don’t have that as well. So it’s hard to think about what it’ll look like in three years without having those people in place. But I want to draw some direct contrast to my opponent who was just talking about the co-response team and what should be funded within the city and how to reallocate those dollars. I believe very strongly that this team, this co-response team should not be developed within the city budget. I think I’ve worked in other communities and I’ve seen this be successful, where counties are responsible for providing mobile crisis services, partnering with the police, sometimes engaging before the police or instead of the police. These programs are funded through Medicaid, through other insurance companies, through federal and state dollars. Chemung County has this program and we should have one in Tompkins County too.

What is the most important quality that the incoming manager should possess? And what should the dynamic between the Common Council and the city manager be? 

DS: I think what’s going to be most important for the next city manager and it’s hard to just tie it down into one or two skills because there’s clearly a whole list of skills that this person will need to be successful, but in terms of working with the council, who will be charged along with the mayor in carrying out and the vision of what we want legislatively in the city. What’s really important in that city manager is that they come ready to listen, that they be able to be a part of facilitating conversation, that they are interested in seeing who’s in the room and bringing in other voices [that] aren’t into the room and engage that in the type of conversation that they’re having. So what I would hope to see most important in this person is really just they’re coming with their ears, and they’re thinking how to facilitate more conversation.

NS: So I think about city manager, and especially when I hear the word ‘manager,’ it sort of evokes images of like the manager of a business, but it’s important to recognize that the city isn’t a business there. There are some important differences and what our goals are and what we’re trying to accomplish. So, we want to definitely think carefully about who we bring in and not bring someone in who has a business mindset necessarily. We want to bring in someone who’s community-focused and community-oriented and considering the city’s tense relationship with public workers in the past, we want someone who the workers are going to trust and someone who maybe has come up through the ranks of city workers or has experienced doing those kinds of jobs, that’s the same kind of work that they’d be overseeing in the city manager position. I think it’s really important that they come from that worker perspective from that community perspective.

PSP: I think it’s most important that our new city manager has an understanding of and a commitment to our community here in Ithaca. I like to believe that there’s something special about Ithaca. I love it here and I feel like in a real way, if it could have made me who I am, we need a city manager who understands and appreciates the community that they are being entrusted with, and I believe that that is absolutely critical. And with that, and with any other traits that have been listed here, we’ll have a good city manager

The Seneca Street parking garage is facing similar issues that the Green Street Garage was about five years ago. What do you think is the best future use of that site?

PSP: To be clear, we do need, at least until we are able to build more localized housing, parking in our community and we need something that is affordable for people who commute. This said, as noted, there are issues and frankly, I don’t believe that I am the best person to decide the fate of this. I think that we have experts who work for the city, and we have a lot of community members who I haven’t been hearing from on this issue because in our ward, in the Third Ward, we are focusing, frankly, on other things right now. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Different communities have different specific needs. Our communities tend to be walkable. We haven’t been thinking for, at least I haven’t been thinking, very heavily about parking in the campaign so far.

DS: Okay, I think the Green Street parking lot is one example that can be learned from. I mean, they’ve turned it into a project even with all the hiccups, where they’re going to be bringing in some affordable housing, they’re going to be bringing in our community, a conference center that is. from what I understand, is going to bring in a lot of new revenue streams into the city, and they’re going to be rehabbing the parking. I think that’s also important because I think, while we as a community want to think about our environment, we’re very conscious about things that relate to climate, climate change and thinking about the Green New Deal threats, for instance, and that’s about to like an investment in biking, bike lanes, different things like that. But what’s also true is we need to think about our buildings, and are we ready to, like, tear things down and create new waste? Or are there ways that we can recreate, if we look at the Seneca Street parking in ways that are similar to what’s being done at Green Street and thinking about how are we having this building and how can it meet multiple purposes, multiple community needs at the same time?

NS: So as I’ve alluded to in an earlier question, so much of the housing on the Commons is at a price point that’s far above that of the median Ithacan again, and far above that of the typical person who works on the Commons, which sort of creates the need for these places for commuters to come. And it also begs the question, instead of having people commute and leave their cars in this garage, why not just make that garage into affordable housing where people could live and cut out that commute? That’s obviously not a complete solution, because we need a lot more affordable housing to solve the problem than that, but I think it’s a good step. And I think in combination with having more accessible public transit, talking specifically about making TCAT go fare-free and expanded service, you can potentially reduce the need for commuter parking downtown, in conjunction with that. So I think that reimagining that space and potentially creating more affordable housing would be a great step, especially in combination with other measures to make life for people working in the city center, easier and more affordable.

The city is struggling to attract and retain workers for various city departments. How can the city realistically address this problem?

NS: I think this hits on a variety of problems and concerns that people are seeing. Among them are, there’s the city budget at large, which is dominated by payroll and payroll is always going to be a big fraction of that and in order to attract the right personnel, we have to offer competitive salaries and we have to offer salaries that keep up with the cost of living in Ithaca. So it’s like this horrible feedback cycle where the rising cost of living is imposing even more costs on taxpayers in the city because if we want to fill those jobs with the right personnel, if we want our departments to be adequately staffed, we need to offer good salaries and good benefits for those positions. So solving this problem, and it sort of goes hand in hand with solving the cost of living problem in Ithaca and creating more affordable housing and so on and so forth, making life more affordable and more attractive for city workers is a big part of this, in addition to offering a safe workplace, good salary, good benefits. And yeah, when it comes to departments like the police department, we’re hiring from way out of town in some cases, creating those unarmed responder positions where we can potentially hire from within the community, rather than having the job search extend way out. I think that’s a good approach too.

PSP: So currently, the city is facing a shortage in our departments of personnel and we need, of course, to ensure that we’re getting the right people for the job. City staffing is incredibly important. Yes, we need to provide good salaries. We need to get the people that we need. But we also need to ensure that people feel secure in their jobs. We need to make sure that they know that we’re not about to turn around and give them a new impossible task or that we are going to start coming after them. Additionally, we need to coordinate better with adjoining municipalities. I know I’ve said this before, but we have competed for staff with the town of Ithaca in the past, and I think that doesn’t help either of us as municipalities or as a community. We’re one community engaged in a collaborative endeavor, the city, the town and other municipalities, the collaborative endeavor of solving common problems that we all share. We can only do that with better coordination and if we aren’t, you know, trying to steal each other’s stuff.

DS: That question of how to attract and retrain and retain workers, that’s been something I’ve been working on for the past 13 years in many different roles. And I think there are a lot of different reasons people take and leave jobs. It’s difficult not to mention pay and benefits is one of the first even though that’s not one of the first reasons people leave. That’s often a lot of the reason why people continue to stay or take jobs. And when we look at things like the city budget for instance, we’re not seeing our salaries compared to other municipalities as competitive. As my opponent mentioned, a lot of the budget is going towards salary, but what’s also happening is the city’s spending like 15% of its budget on debt right now. And thinking long term about how do we continue to keep up with the rising costs of wages— rising wages we need to see and the rising cost of living, we need to also be thinking about proactively, what kind of projects are we investing in that’s taking away from budget. Is the debt we’re taking, is that good debt? And I think when you look at a number like 15%, for instance, that seems pretty high. I think what’s also really important is what we think about with the city manager coming on soon. I think that a leadership position is incredibly important in setting the tone of how the city government is going to operate and how the morale of the staff are going to feel. You know, a lot of people said good things about our last mayor and I’m one of the people that did say good things about them. And what I appreciated about him was that I was able to learn about city government on Facebook and Twitter and things like that often before his department heads and things like that, and I think communication of the next leader is going to be critically important.

What do you think is the most underrated issue facing your ward, an issue that isn’t constantly talked about or debated on a citywide level?

NS: So I’d say the thing that immediately comes to mind when I think about my ward, and Belle Sherman and South Hill is, these are areas where there’s this interesting intersection between different communities of students who go to school at IC or Cornell and tenants and homeowners. And that creates a lot of interesting dynamics in our neighborhood for sure. And I hear from a lot of people on both sides of this about what could be done differently and what the responsible route to densifying housing is, to sort of make these neighborhoods affordable, especially for new people coming in, whether they’re trying to go to school or whether they’re trying to start a family in close proximity to one of our great schools, and so there’s been a lot of great discussion about accessory dwelling units. Just generally trying to envision what denser housing would look like that wouldn’t disrupt the character of the community. So I think there are points of agreement, like trying to limit Airbnb is trying to have less of these out-of-town, landlords and big developers taking over. There are still a lot of really contentious things like accessory dwelling units where I’m trying to educate myself over time and figure out what the right solutions would be in collaboration with these people.

DS: I think what’s important to the ward and what’s been discussed at some of the committee meetings, where they discuss things like housing policy, are kind of like contradictions, but not in that the needs are different—they’re not speaking to each other. So you have the PEDC committee that’s discussing a lot of homelessness policy right now. They’re thinking about things like TIDES and other types of ways to support the homeless population in the community. And what was being discussed in that same committee, just a few months back was thinking about, like, new zoning and housing policy for the city, thinking about residential neighborhoods and how to do the things like create policy around short-term rentals and how to also think about ways to densify our neighborhoods because I think what everyone is starting to realize is that even if you want to live in a neighborhood, like Bell Sherman and South Hill and you moved there because you wanted to grow, bring your kids to a specific kind of school based neighborhood. I think we’re all coming to realize that everyone wants access to these neighborhoods, and there’s a reason to think about how to densify the neighborhoods. But I think again, like what I’m saying is that the there’s a lot of congestion at this committee meeting right now and I think what our ward both represented both in Bell Sherman and South Hill want to see is that this housing policy begins to take priority within our committees again,

PSP: So we discussed the two interpretations of this question. I agree with both of these fine gentlemen that the real underrated issue that our ward needs the city to address more thoroughly is housing and specifically densification and assisted development use. We need a method of ensuring that our communities will continue to exist, while also allowing people to densify within their own properties. However, since I think they did a reasonably good job of talking about that, I’m going to talk about something else, which is the absolutely arbitrary bordering lines between us and the town of Ithaca. Our neighborhoods have cul-de-sacs that are in the town of Ithaca after the road is in the city of Ithaca. We exist within a set of very arbitrary lines that don’t define our communities. We have community members who live in the town. Friendship and community knows no borders, after all. And these arbitrary lines do impact our communities in unfortunate ways. I think that we need to be thinking, going into the future about maybe making our lines somewhat less arbitrary.


DS: So thank you for hosting this forum today. I hope it’s been really helpful in hearing about the things that are important to me, the ways that I hope to contribute and some of the ways that I’m different, or some of the issues that separate me from the other candidates. What’s interesting about me is some of you have heard me speak here before or in another kind of forum. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve run for office before. And it’s something that for those that don’t know me, it’s just something that I feel committed and dedicated to do. I can tell you a longer backstory about my life but what you should know today is that I just absolutely love the city of Ithaca. It would be a really great honor for me to be able to represent us in public service. What’s also true is I’ve had to reconcile with this idea that I have lost a couple of elections and people tell me not to talk about it, but I like to because I think one of the things that I’ve had to reconcile is that I’ve actually lost some really great people. I’ve lost to people like Henry Granison us and I’ve lost to people like Eldred Harris, I’ve lost to people like Nicole LaFave, and these are both great people. And they’re people that have very different lived experiences. They don’t look like me. And I’m sitting around the room with Pierre Nathan and I’m thinking I’m proud to be a Democrat today. I’ve been proud for a few years. It’s nice to know that, it isn’t just people that look like me represented in the room. But what’s true is that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to listen to people trying to learn perspectives, and trying to use what has been given to me the skills that I’ve brought to this world and some might say the privilege that I have with me. To use those skills and the voice that I have to make a difference for everybody. And if you vote for me today, and I really hope that I really hope to get a chance to represent my community today. But if you vote for me today, just know you’ll have a voice that really cares and is really looking to represent everybody.

NS: So I’d also like to thank the hosts, it’s been wonderful being here and this is a really good list of questions. I’m sort of racking my mind for additional topics and one thing that comes to my mind that has been pushed to the backburner, because there are these great financial stresses in our city: It’s all the stuff about the Ithaca Green New Deal. And this is something that a lot of people are really invested in, both from a perspective of looking forward to trying to reduce our carbon footprint and be a leader in that regard, and also respecting the land that we live on, which is indigenous land. All these things are interconnected and I feel like it’s been pushed to the back burner because you talk about things like heat pumps and that sort of thing which would reduce our carbon footprint. They’re also expensive. So I just want to say when I talk about making Cornell pay more, it’s these kinds of things that money could go towards making our city a leader in these areas, instead of having this stuff always on the back burner and never quite taking off in earnest, like people want to see. And I guess another thing I want to say is, zooming out a little bit to a national scope. It is pride month and this is a time when LGBTQ people and their rights are under serious threat nationally, as well as the rights of immigrants and other minorities. I think this is another area where Ithaca really needs to take a leadership position and be a sanctuary city for people for LGBTQ people who need health care, for people who need reproductive health care, for immigrants who are looking for a safe place to live. We need to be a welcoming city for those people. That’s something that’s really important to me and would be a big priority for me in office.

PSP: I just want to say it’s so wonderful, being back here at WRFI. I grew up here in Ithaca. I’ve lived here for 19 years of my life. The first ever bed I slept in was in Belle Sherman and I love this community. This community made me who I am. I went through ICSD and I went to LACS. I believe in our deliberative process and our ability to address problems as a community. Of course I do, I went to LACS. Moving forward, we need to keep doing better. Because that’s what local government is supposed to do. It’s supposed to address the problems of the community. It’s supposed to listen. It’s supposed to orchestrate the deliberative process. And I’m really excited about the opportunity of being around and being a part of changing how we approach that with the new city manager position. And once again, because I’m going to keep hitting this refrain, coordinating better with the town and other municipalities. I believe Ithaca can be an even more wonderful community than it already is. And it is one. It’s a community that has supported me and so many other people in so many different ways. We can make that community welcoming to everyone, we can make that community supportive for everyone. And thank you so much for this interview and this time.

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