ELECTION FEATURE: Ithaca Common Council Ward 3 Candidates

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

I’m Celia Clarke, with Matt Butler Editor-in-Chief of The Ithaca Voice. Today, Ward 3 candidates Pat Sewell and Pierre Saint-Perez. Saint-Perez is the Democratic Party candidate.  Sewell is an Independent running on the Community ballot line.

CELIA CLARKE: WRFI Community Radio and The Ithaca Voice are bringing you conversations with candidates in the contested Ithaca Common Council races and the mayoral race. I'm Celia Clarke here with Matt Butler, Editor-in-Chief of The Ithaca Voice. 

Today you'll hear from Ward Three candidates Pat Sewell and Pierre Saint-Perez. Saint-Perez is the Democratic Party candidate. Sewell is an Independent running on the Community ballot line. 

The Ward includes South Hill and Belle Sherman, the candidates will each have 90 seconds to answer each question, and then they'll have two minutes for closing remarks. Pierre Saint-Perez is the first one to answer.


MATT BUTLER: So now that you have spent the last several months campaigning and, and we have two weeks until the election, two weeks until election day, what are the issues that you've found to be at the forefront for the voters in your ward?


PIERRE SAINT-PEREZ: I mean, they're absolutely numerous and varied issues. It really depends where in the ward you are, but some carry through everywhere. 

Look, the cost of living in Ithaca is going up. People are having trouble keeping up with these costs. Some people are getting priced out of their homes or their rentals. These are serious issues, and we need to do something about them. 

Aside from that, you live near one of the schools, you're probably concerned about people speeding by the school as am I that's a safety issue for all of our children. And something we definitely need to address. 

Outside of that, every street has its own issues, challenges, etc. and I think the fact that everyone's dealing with their own challenges, but there are also greater ones speaks to, speaks to the diversity and strength of our ward and Ithaca.


PAT SEWELL: So there are a couple of perennial issues similar to what Pierre was saying, cost living is always a big one infrastructure is a big one as well. And then there’s issues that sort of come and go that are more timely – the MOU. 

Because I've been, I started campaigning back in July, to try to get my name out and sort of, the issues have changed over time. And so back then there's questions about the homeless encampments. What to do about that. And then it turned into questions about the MOU. And more recently, there was a dust-up about Southside, that's something that I've been talking to people about. 

And so there's timely issues that people are really concerned about. One of the, one of the jobs that I have, when I'm going around is trying to keep up with all the issues so that I can answer the questions that they have about things to make sure that I'm properly representing what, what I, that I would probably be representing what folks in the in the Ward are concerned about. 

But the ones that people do come back to time and again is cost of living and infrastructure and housing. I mean, housing is always the big one. And I think both of us have expressed the value of having something like owner-occupied accessible dwelling unit zoning.


MB: So this time, Pat, you'll answer first and then Pierre. 

CC: Between numbers and anecdotes, local crime is confusing. Do you believe Ithaca has gotten more dangerous in the last five years? Or have the issues just become more visible? Is there a cause for this? And what's the solution?


Good question. Anecdotally, certainly, in my experience, says certainly so. 

One of the things I started doing last couple years is working on The Commons. Working at, there's a red kiosk on The Commons and I hand out literature for the city trying to sell the city to the tourists. And it's working for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. And I have seen the decline in The Commons in terms of how people interact, in terms of the amount of blatant violations that used to not occur, like what you call that open container [law] that is very common on The Commons, and it never used to happen. Obviously, there's a lot of smoking on The Commons. Smoking, actually, I think it was in 2019, maybe earlier Common Council said you couldn't smoke it all on The Commons. And now people are smoking everything. I mean, a variety of so–So, I’ve seen, I’ve just seen a lot of crime increase. 

When I walk around and talk to people they're also very concerned about crime and the cause of it. I think it relates directly to the loss of our police force. We, I, something like half the police force disappeared over the last three years. And so their response time has been terrible. And I've experienced that directly as well. I've tried calling in when I've seen issues occurring on The Commons and it's taken up to four hours to get any response from the police. And so that's been a huge issue for me. And I would really like to see the city finish its Reimagining Public Safety campaign. But we first need to bring back the police force to full status.


PS-P: Is Ithaca more dangerous? I would say that, if it, if it is, and it very well may be, as you noted, it's confusing, and this isn't the sort of thing that we have solid data on. It's a feeling that people have. If it is, a good amount of that is based on factors that are somewhat out of our control. 

Ithaca has a growing economy. Ithaca has a good amount of wealth compared to two areas around us. That is inherently going to attract some amount of centralization of illicit activity. 

I think there's also an aspect of we have been, ever since the community discussion on public safety, very focused on the issue of safety and Ithaca. And we have all been hyper-aware of when and what crime happens. And this, I think, has made a lot of us feel less safe than we actually are. That's not to say there aren't valid safety concerns for many communities in Ithaca but they're also communities who don't have the same threats against them, who are afraid. I'd say the best step now is to continue our Reimagining Public Safety plan and try to implement it as quickly as possible.


MB: So each neighborhood in Ithaca gets a design plan. The downtown Ithaca design plan is slated to be presented in the next few months. What do you think is the most important development necessity downtown? And if it's housing, how would you pursue that more effectively than it has been in the last decade? Yeah.


PS-P: In terms of downtown, the most important thing that we need to focus on is flood mitigation. I'd love to say housing, I would, but it is flood mitigation. If we have a serious flood in downtown Ithaca, floods, destroy communities and leave lasting and dramatic effects on infrastructure, and a flood in downtown Ithaca, which per the new flood maps. 

You're good.

CC: At this point, we stopped briefly as a train passed nearby. And then Saint-Perez began to answer again,


PS-P: The flood maps that we've received are, in fact, based on river flooding in the Midwest, not lake flooding in the Northeast. If we're looking at lake flooding, the impacts of a flood could be so much worse than what we're already looking at from the new flood maps. We need to create plans to mitigate that and we need to focus, look, we built downtown on a swamp we reclaimed that swamp from Mother Nature. And Mother Nature's coming back. And if we want downtown to survive, which I do, we need to treat that swamp with some respect, acknowledge that it was once a swamp and wants to be a swamp and approach our development in a way that downtown can survive another century.


PS: Thank you. I really appreciate Pierre’s point. I think that there is something we need to look at is the flooding, that, they changed the flooding maps and it looks like we are much more likely to have an extensive flooding in the one 100-year timescale which increases insurance rates. But I think that is something that I would not – I think that housing is the issue that we need to deal with. The two that I see that are really problematic right now and take immediate concern are the deterioration of the feeling of public safety. Whether or not it's actual people definitely feel like the city's less safe. And housing. I think those are the two main priorities at this time. The –  adjusting the first one making people feel more safe, again, as we both mentioned, following through with the Reimagining Public Safety campaign, but that first has to begin with re-staffing, fully staffing the public, ah, with the police force. And the second part of that housing. 

I think the city has actually done a really good job of increasing housing. It's taking a while for that to come online. There are a number of buildings, a number of developments that will be coming out in the next couple of years. But continuing using tax incentives and abatements to incentivize developers to create housing that is accessible to a range of income levels is extremely important.


CC: The memorandum of understanding with Cornell has now been settled. What else would you have wanted the city to get in the deal? And how would you have achieved that concession?


PS: That’s for me, right? Yeah, ah, what I would have liked to have seen as a more reasonable timeline for the MOU, they reduced it. But I think it's still 15 years, which is a tremendously long time, especially for something that's important. 

Then how I would have achieved that? I honestly don't have a good answer for that, I don't feel that we have a lot of leverage with the city because there's, there is no legal thing compelling Cornell to do this. 

So one of the things that I'm interested in, which is a longer-term project is looking at how public institutions like Cornell, and like NYU, and like how they how their tax exemption status works. Because one of the difficulties we've run into is that as Cornell acquires more land, we essentially lose the tax base from that. And so I think when there's, when that relationship occurs, we are really limited in our ability to raise taxes. That's set by state law, though, and so that's really something I think it would be worthwhile in the city looking into, or at least our representatives at the legislature or at the, at the state level to look into.


PS-P: You know, I can't describe how disappointed I am in the Memorandum, Memorandum of Understanding that has been agreed to. And I think there are failures on many sides. But the current deal is one that is not good for Cornell, or for the city, which is honestly impressive, right? 

It doesn't allow the city to provide for the infrastructure needs of Cornell students, it doesn't give us enough to actually make up for the infrastructure costs of Cornell's expanding population into the city. At the same time, it locks us into an extended commitment, right? Fifteen years is still a long time. And I can see why many members of Council voted for it because Cornell basically said “It's our way or the highway, do you want to go bankrupt?” Just not, which is not what we look for in a community member and a neighbor. Right? 

It's, the city of Ithaca and Cornell should have a relationship that is of equal or, or at least, or at least friendly partners and neighbors. And instead, the approach that Cornell took, led to a confrontational system that has led to bad results all around, we need to foster something that protects both Cornell and Ithaca centrists.


MB: Now that the unarmed responders unit seems to be moving forward, structural support is going to be crucial to ensure that it doesn't fail in its initial stages. What do you think should be the metric to measure that unit's success? And what are the structural supports that should be in place to support them?


PS-P: So if we're talking about a metric for success for unarmed responders, I, I am not an expert in public safety. Personally, that's not what I've studied. That's not what I focused on. But –  which means that this perspective is but one and I would want to hear from people who really do have expertise in this. That said, I think, successful responses to calls would be a huge aspect of it, right? We want, we want unarmed responders that help people, that support our community. 

In terms of institutional support, I genuinely believe that our community is behind our, our plan to put unarmed responders in place and that our city has the, has the resources, we're going to have a new, a new city manager, they're going to be reporting to the city manager system. And I'm hoping that having the city manager will ensure that the new response officers will have the resources they need. And that those will be communicated well to Council.


PS: Good question. I also am not an expert in determining this sort of thing. What I would probably look at would be things like the response time of the unit, how the contacts go, how many contacts they're making, evaluations on the part of people who are doing that calls in the people receiving local calls. 

I got to say on a side note, I'm really, really excited about this. This is one of my favorite aspects of the Reimagining Public Safety because, again, working downtown, there have been numerous times when I've run into a situation where we need either, and I've worked both GreenStar Dewitt and on The Commons, I haven’t been to Dewitt in a while, but we run into situations where we have folks who we need outside help with, and we don't necessarily want to call the police for that, because they're not necessarily trained to deal with that. And there's a possibility of it escalating. So I'm really excited about this happening. 

And I would look into, the, to, how they're, how the responses are working, who's doing the calling, if they feel like it's achieving its job and sort of do surveys along that line to I think that would make sense. 

In terms of creating a structure for it, it would definitely need to have a good strong working relationship with the police. Because the two of them, I think, need to work in tandem with each other. They needed to have strong communication with each other. And they need to each feel like they're not doing each other's jobs. And there's good respect between the two. And I would hope that the city manager and then with council supervision can help facilitate the relationship between those.


CC: In May, city HR director Shelley, Michelle Nunn said that the city should have a list of police chief candidates by 120 days or four months. We're now nearly six months since that statement without any public list of candidates, despite a nearly $200,000 salary and signing bonus package. Why doesn't the city have a police chief yet?


PS: I'm going first on that one. Yeah, sure. I mean, so it, this is hugely speculative. So I don't like answering it, but I want to be in your good graces. I will, I will do so.

No, I mean, so it could be, I've heard from, I've talked to various police in different areas. I go to, because I'm at TC3, we often are have hiring – what they're called, like places where you can go and see different people that are hiring. And so Cornell's hiring, Cornell police are hiring, Ithaca police are hiring. So I talked to the police officers there and talk about their experiences. And Ithaca still has a kind of a not great reputation in relation to their police. It's totally anecdotal. But I mean, that could be part of it. 

The other part of it is that the labor market is still really tight. And it's tight across the board. It's been doing better. But I've seen this in all sorts of hiring positions. INHS [Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service] is currently trying to hire someone they're having a hard time. So for looking for someone with very particular skills and talents, that labor market is still really tight. And I think that's probably the best explanation as to why we haven't found that person yet. It's great to have a good economy. The downside is that it's harder for businesses and cities to hire good employees.


PS-P: As noted, this is, this is a naturally speculative question. The sense that I have is that there's there are a lot of unknowns if you're going into being the police chief of Ithaca right now. 

We've gone through several in a pretty short time, we're one of the few communities, few communities that have actually committed to a Reimagining Public Safety or other form of plan, which adds another layer of uncertainty as to what the police chief's role is going to be in the new public safety paradigm in Ithaca. 

I can see all these uncertainties with the job leading a lot of people to say “Do I really want to bite this off? Do I really want to risk being the next police chief that, that Ithaca loses?” I think it's also worth noting that we do currently have an acting chief who is from Ithaca, a member of our community and has been doing his best to ensure that we're safe and that our police force does exactly what it is supposed to do.


MB: What is your opinion of local government officials spending time talking about or weighing in on international issues? Like we saw last week with the Tompkins County legislators debate about whether or not to fly the Israeli flag in the chambers?


PS-S: As I see it, we are a local government and we're a local government that's facing severe issues here. I have many thoughts on international relations as I'm sure we all do. This is a democracy where we are all supposed to speak and share our beliefs. I do sometimes wonder whether it's, It's worthwhile for local governments to engage in these conversations when we have limited amounts of time to address our issues that our local governments are in place to address while we still have a housing crisis, while we still have massive infrastructure problems. Is it, is it a good use of our time? And I think that can depend on the issue at hand. It is worth giving voice to people who need it globally. But we need to balance that against our actual jobs.


PS: It's –  Thank you – It's tricky because the –  I think local government provides two roles. One of the roles is to basically make the city work and function and act appropriately, and develop a good economy so people can work and live and thrive. But I think the other part of what our local government does is express our values as a community. And so even though we are not going to have a whole lot of say, on the outcome of what happens in Israel, and Gaza, it's still important to have an expression of the fundamental values that represent us as a society and that our city government holds. And so if it's a question about really important values, and I think this is I think this is a huge issue to people in the city. I think it's worth spending time on that it is at a cost of really important stuff. But I think that can be a trade-off that's worth it, if the values are deep enough, is part of our political and cultural heritage and important enough to the to the people living here.


CC: The city's unsanctioned homeless encampment plan passed this summer, it includes certain elements of The Ithaca Designated Encampment Sites [TIDES] , but it's a far cry from that plan. What's the most important thing you think was left out of the plan in its final form? What else should the city do to address the homelessness issue locally? And by extension, the Jungle?


PS: So I am not well versed in the, I'll just say, I'm not well versed in the TIDES program, because that seemed to, which is I think, what the what you're referring to? Yeah, yeah. Because the, the plan changed so much. I sort of just followed the the newer model. I think, so I don't have a good sense of comparing what it was to what it is. I think one of my concerns of the current model is the one that was expressed by Alderperson McGonigal, which is that it's, it's incomplete because it is not enforcing the, the camping restrictions in areas, and I would, and I think it's really important to have folks concentrated in a particular area so that they can receive services. And it's easier for the service people getting to them and accessing them. And I, that's, I find that problematic. 

Well, I forgot the second part of your question, but I apologize. 

CC: What should the city do about that's okay.

PS: Oh, what'd you do about the homelessness in the Jungle. Working with Tompkins County to bring in health workers to address the underlying issues of poverty and mental health issues. I think that’;s the thing driving homelessness. Thank you for reminding me.


PS-P: So I was on the original TIDES committee. And there was so much that we researched and put together that never even, never even got to Council, so much of, of that plan. I mean, by the time that the actual plan that was adopted, was adopted, almost the whole thing had just been stripped out. And that includes some incredibly important parts a core part of our original— 


CC: We had to stop here because of a train passing by then he picked up where he left off. 

PS-S: A core part of our original TIDES plan was putting a locked door specifically in between the women who are getting abused and taken advantage of in the Jungle and the people who are taking advantage of them. It's it's not a huge cost. But it could make a huge impact on individual lives. Putting into place something that can't be cut through with a knife. These kinds of, those kinds of abuses that are daily happening in the Jungle, and I am disappointed that we're moving so slowly on this issue. It's going to be another winter now Before we can really implement any services, even through the county and locked doors, I believe still have to be first on our agenda.


MB: So you both have talked about flood mitigation. And what do you think the city can do? What's what's even feasible for the city to do to address flood mitigation or to, you know, further those goals.


PS-P: So there's multiple aspects here. If we want to address the FEMA flood maps, that most likely involves building barriers around a lot of our creeks. I know that we are attached to our creeks, or at least I certainly am. But I would rather build a barrier next to that creek than see that creek overflow into people's homes. However, if we're talking about lake flooding, which is also a serious problem, and one that's not represented on the FEMA maps, what we're looking at is something more complex, where we would need to involve multiple different authorities that are involved with the levels of all of the Finger Lakes, because they're all one large hydraulic system. And we would also need to likely create some form of absorption in case the lake overflows, which is what traditionally swamps did in this area. There's a lot we can do. 

There's a lot of work being done on mitigating these kinds of environmental dangers, especially now as climate change impacts are happening across the world. And I think this is an opportunity for us to get out in front of the flooding and adapting to climate issues, challenge and set an example of what it looks like when a community comes together.


PS: So when I went to the discussion on this, that, I forget who set this up, back when they were drawing the new flood maps, they invited people to come look at them. 

And when I went to look at them, there was two solutions that were being proposed. One was essentially berms, what Pierre was talking about, and the other is dredging. Both of those are multimillion-dollar projects, very expensive, something the city would have a very difficult time funding. So the city is looking at tapping into federal resources to do that, that would be one way to do it, possibly state resources as a way to do that. But it's not something I think the city is going to be able to handle on its own. And, and yeah, having a good working relationship with the state and the Feds is, is key for that. 

Happily, our [elected] representatives do and I think we've got a good chance of getting grants and other funding streams for trying to do both of those. And those are both going to make a lot of changes in the city. But as noted, flooding is, has become a real possibility for most of the downtown area.


CC: So the city is finally settled on contracts with many of its workers. But with that comes higher budget implications. How does the city realistically keep its union satisfied, and competitively compensated while controlling costs and spending?


PS: Good question. And that's it, that is a hard one but it's a, it's a real question. And it's one that should be asked. I don't have any magic bullets. 

One of the things I would say is that we need to be very conscientious when we're doing the budgeting process, which is sounds like a cop out. But I think that's really important, is being careful with your spending on that way. The other thing, one of the upsides of having a functioning public works system is that we invest in our infrastructure, we invest in our police, and I think both of those things lead to a more vibrant downtown, which potentially increases our tax revenues. Because we either raise money from our property, property owners, right from property taxes, or we raise it from tax revenue. And I think there's a lot of potential for income growth. Again, The Commons is really not doing great right now. And there's a lot of potential growth in those areas. And for the city at large, but to make that happen, we have to have a nice, strong, and supported infrastructural system, and that's going to come from paying our public employees and them doing excellent work, which I know they will when they're well compensated.


PS-P: Right. This is a core challenge. We need to provide good union jobs to our city employees. And I'm really glad that we have updated that contract. But the city is in a difficult financial place. And we were hoping that Cornell would be a better partner to help us fill that gap. They have not been. 

And I think at this point, we really need to look at what parts, what parts of our city we are allowing to not contribute. And this gets to the issue of abatements. We should not be giving abatements to build student housing. We giving people tax breaks to do what one of the developers described as printing money is insane. And it takes money out of providing more staffing to our city. And our city has a staffing shortage. If it needs more workers, if we want to get the grants that were just discussed, we need workers who are able to fill out the grants and who are able to keep us on the reporting requirements that come with all these federal, state grants. We don't have the resources to keep up with the grants that we need. So we need to focus on how we're going to get those resources.


CC: Next, each candidate was given two minutes for closing remarks. Pat Sewell spoke first, then Pierre Saint-Perez.


PS: So in closing, I guess I just like to reiterate why I'm running in the first place. I went to one of the meet and greets early on for the candidates and interjected a lot of questions and had a lot of conversation with a candidate and went away not feeling totally satisfied. And I was talking to, to someone there. And they said, Why aren't you running for public office? And I thought about it. And I thought back. I've been here a long time, I built strong relationships with people across the ward and across the city. I've worked for community-focused organizations like GreenStar. I volunteered for a lot of nonprofits doing board work. I've got governance experience, community organizing experience. So I realized I check a lot of boxes for the type of person I would want as a representative in my own Common Council. 

And so I, that made me realize I'm a good candidate. And I also know I would do a really good job. And I think the other thing that I would like people to keep in mind when they're thinking about voting is I'm running as an Independent. And this is somewhat novel, we've got a couple of Independents running, but the other folks are folks who lost in the primaries, I was never in the primaries, I have been running as an independent the entire time. 

And although it was sort of accidental, one of the things that attracted me to it is that one out of five people in the city [who] are registered, are not registered as Democrats. And in our city, if you're not registered as a Democrat, you can't vote in the primary. And so you don't really get to make a choice in the election. The generals are, are decided by the primaries. In fact, the other seat [in Wrd 3] is now unopposed because that the person running against David lost in the primary and so he dropped out. And I find that really problematic. 

So I would love to see the the people elected Independent to Common Council for the first time in over 20 years, Pierre and I have a lot in common. We agree on a lot of things. But I think it would behoove us as a city to expand the representation that we elect.


PS-S: You know, we've touched on a lot of really important issues here today. And what really gets me about these is that these were issues that I was talking about in high school, right? I grew up here in Ithaca. And this is my community. And if we talking about housing, I was on a committee trying to address that. When I was a senior, I was apprentice to Common Council, and we were talking about a lot of the same issues that we're talking about now. When I was a student rep on the board of education, we were talking about a lot of the challenges that still affect our school district. And it has been a while, you know, I did, I did leave town to get a degree in public policy, come back. And now I've almost finished a law degree, like I admit, I was hoping that these issues would be gone. And they're not we're still dealing with these same challenges. 

I think that as we deal with those challenges, and as we deal with the fact that Ithaca is changing, and you know, I may not love that fact, but that's not something that we can turn back the clock on. We need to make sure that Ithaca retains what makes it special. I think having the voice of someone who grew up here in town on Council is something that the current Council doesn't have, could make a huge difference. I think that is a valuable perspective to add. 

And I think that having someone who is playing the political game in the Democratic Party, if we really want to make change happen, is valuable. I respect running as an Independent but this is a city of Democrats. This is a city where the vast majority of people are Democrats. And this is a city where we are committed to each other.


CC: This was a WRFI News Special with Ward Three candidates Pierre Saint-Perez and Pat Sewell. Tune in on Thursday at 6 p.m. To hear from Ward Five candidate Jason Houghton. His opponent Clyde Lederman declined our invitations. Early Voting started last Saturday and goes through November 5. Election day is next Tuesday.