By Rob Montana
With at least 20 people announcing their plans to run for Tompkins County Legislature in the fall, Tompkins Weekly will be offering readers an opportunity to learn more about the people who will be appearing on ballots in September and November.
District 2, which covers a portion of the City of Ithaca, has been represented by Democrat Anna Kelles since 2015; to date, she is the only person who has announced plans to run for the seat. Here is what she had to say in response to our questions.
Tompkins Weekly: What are the top three issues facing Tompkins County?
Anna Kelles: A lack of housing – in particular affordable housing – inside the City of Ithaca, the economic center of the county, is leading to gentrification, rising tensions, and undue burdens on working class individuals and families. Many drive long distances to maintain jobs in the city, often with older cars that are expensive to maintain. Complicated strains on work hours compete with the need for childcare. This situation is often compounded by low pay requiring longer work weeks. We need a diversity of housing of all types built as sustainably as is feasible. We need to intentionally create mixed-income developments and neighborhoods proven to ensure vibrant, stable and engaged residents.
A variance that has allowed the county to avoid cell expansion at the Tompkins County jail has been slated for removal. This decision has inspired a deep review and discussion of our current judicial system and practices, our bail system, existing alternatives to incarceration in the community, support systems and diversion programs for people with drug addiction issues and mental health concerns, re-entry programs and services, and programs and services that inmates can access in jail. An important goal of this review is to continue to reduce our jail population and ensure a continuum of care.
Balancing quality services with property taxes is always at the top of the list when talking to constituents. We are continuing in an era where the cost of living is increasing while incomes stay flat. People are stretched and more families are dropping from middle-income into low-income classification. We are working harder and resting less, and more people are relying on social services like Medicaid, mental health, housing and food support. Many of these services are funded in part by money that is collected locally and redistributed by these services. It is important to maintain services, yet property tax is a regressive tax that puts a greater relative burden on the poor compared to the rich. It is a struggle that requires a delicate balance at the local level and aggressive lobbying at the state level for the state to pay for currently unfunded mandated programs and services via a progressive income tax.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
AK: I have worked as a director of an academic school of nutrition designing and running the school, including hiring and training faculty. I have been a director of a sustainability not-for-profit, supporting and coaching businesses towards people, planet, and profit growth. I have been a consultant building organizations and designing websites, a clerk at a bookstore, a printer in a print shop, a shift worker at the deli counter of a supermarket, and more. I am currently an entrepreneur in nutrition counseling. I have spent years writing and publishing about public health and social justice issues, and have been humbled and inspired by years consensus building as a community organizer and activist. Being a legislator requires that every day I tap into any and every skill I’ve stitched together and even some I haven’t managed to acquire yet.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
AK: I grew up in Trumansburg and, in 1992, I went to Binghamton University to study biology and environmental studies, all relatively mainstream choices at the time. Driven by a desire to understand other cultures, I pursued several scholarships to study in Ecuador. I spent a semester learning the language and studying the impacts of low income on hunger and malnutrition among children. I completed my degree at BU while in Ecuador and stayed to work with a woman’s group on child nutrition and health. To live and work with these families, seeing many moments of innocent joy among the children juxtaposed with chronic sickness from malnutrition was heart-breaking, inspiring, and humbling. I spent three more years living and working in Ecuador with indigenous Quechua communities and later as a high school biology teacher. I came back to the U.S. four years later to pursue a Ph.D in nutrition in developing countries. Much of my life’s work since then has been teaching public health nutrition, working in the legislature in Health and Human Services, and fighting for human rights equality, which grew from the seeds planted by working with the children of Ecuador.
TW: How do you balance the desires of your constituents and your own personal beliefs when making decisions as a member of the Legislature?
AK: Spending 30-40 hours a week steeped in the details of county work invariably means I know the nuances of issues that come up in the Legislature. I find that all issues are interconnected, different solutions work for different constituents and no one solution works for everyone. I believe it is my responsibility to provide as much digestible information as I can to my constituents through one-on-one meetings, meeting with organizations, published articles, and a flow of emails to listservs. Then I listen and engage. I try to undertake all of these actions before coming up to an important vote, so that engaged constituents are educated, they know where I stand and we have had time to discuss my stance. At the end of the day, constituents support me for the values we share and place their trust in me that these values will be the underpinning of my decisions.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
AK: I have gathered many skills along the way that I bring to the table, but more than skills, I have a fire in my belly, and when I wake up every morning I know I have come to the work I want to be doing. I know government is not the answer to everything. It was never intended or designed to be. It is one tool in our society’s toolbox and I will continue to fight for a government that works for everyone.