Over the next few weeks, Tompkins Weekly will be publishing interviews with all five incumbents of the Ithaca Common Council race, before the June 25 primary. Interviews will be published in order of the ward that each council member represents. This year’s incumbents up for re-election, in order of ward: George McGonigal, First Ward; Ducson Nguyen, Second Ward; Rob Gearhart, Third Ward; Stephen Smith, Fourth Ward; and Laura Lewis, Fifth Ward.
Rob Gearhart Gearhart has been a common council member for almost four years, representing the Third Ward. In that time, he’s learned a lot about how the job, and local government, works. As his term comes to an end this year, he’s not ready to leave and throw all that knowledge away.
“As much as you think you’re prepared to jump into this, there’s a lot to learn,” Gearhart said. “I feel like I’m just getting up to speed in some areas and I don’t want to have to waste that effort. There’s a lot to do still.”
He’s still driven by the reasons he ran four years ago, he said: his commitment to the community, without an agenda. While some candidates are pushed into politics because of housing specifically, or traffic, or any of the other issues that communities face, Gearhart said that wasn’t his tactic. He doesn’t have one issue that jumpstarted his political career. He thought he could use his experience as an educator and media producer to tackle complicated issues and bring more transparency to local government.
If he was driven by an issue, he said, it would be to get more people engaged in the running of their own community.
“I’m a big believer in ‘We’ve all got to take our turn.’ I know not everyone does, but I think it’s important that if you feel a sense of commitment to your community and a sense of public service, it’s a great experience to jump in,” he said.
But running again wasn’t just about him as a sole candidate. The board as it currently stands, Gearhart explained, is a group that has a similar vision for the city, is respectful of each member’s perspective, and works well together.
Some of the main issues that Gearhart wants to keep addressing as a member of Common Council include: transportation, infrastructure, housing, and communication between City Hall and the community.
When it comes to housing, he wants to see more opportunities for owner-occupied and workforce level housing.
“Affordable in that way,” he said. “But also, an opportunity for people to own homes instead of just creating more opportunities for rental. That’s a big issue that I think we’ll be wrestling with and I want to help with.”
Like his colleagues featured before him, Gearhart is proud that the council was able to authorize an additional streets and facilities and water and sewer crew in the 2019 budget to help with the infrastructure projects around Ithaca. Aging infrastructure around the city is an ongoing issue that affects not just local residents but commuters who work and visit Ithaca regularly.
When it comes to the issue of transportation, for Gearhart it’s a wide-ranging issue that encompasses not only TCAT but LimeBikes and the intercity bus issue.
“In general, I think it’s a great piece of the puzzle of how to move people around,” Gearhart said about the possibility of LimeScooters being introduced in the city. “It does help get them around with maybe a little less reliance on the car. But, I’m very concerned about safety. Having them safe in the streets, and when they’re not, how do you keep them off the sidewalks? Because they can’t be on the sidewalks. So, if they can’t be on the streets and they can’t be on the sidewalks, then we have a problem to solve.”
If or when the city does bring in a scooter-sharing service, he wants the city to hold the company accountable for its responsibility when it comes to safety. Transportation is an issue he has seen discussed in local listserves for his constituents that ended up giving the city great information about Carshare and future potential spots. It’s this communication that Gearhart wants to encourage and see more of between the city and its residents.
Over the last four years, Gearhart is proud of the work he has done to help frame the new commission structure, designating historic structures in the city, and being able to support Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick’s work with the budget.
“I think he’s done great work, in that he wasn’t really handed – just because of what was going on in the country as a whole with the economy – he wasn’t handed a great scenario, and he’s worked really hard, and I appreciate his work in that and also communicating that to the Common Council so that we can support that in ways that we think are most effective.”
In the future, Gearhart would like to see Cornell University contribute more money to the city.
“We certainly value having Cornell as an institution here, but I think it’s also important to make sure issues are on the table so that we all understand where their investment in support not only in Ithaca but all the municipalities that it touches is important, and where it might be falling short,” he said.For Gearhart, the areas he would like to see more investment from the university are in Collegetown and infrastructure.
What he wants people to know about him as a candidate is that he is on council because of his commitment to the community and he believes his experience as an administrator can be a useful tool for getting things done and facilitating conversation as a public official.
Stephen SmithSince joining Common Council in 2012, Stephen Smith, Fourth Ward representative, said the city has made good progress on housing that he wants to see continue. Council is in the “messy middle,” now, and Smith is running for re-election to push past the mess to keep moving forward on the goal of achieving affordable, high-quality housing.
Affordable housing is Smith’s number one priority. It always has been. “That’s the biggest problem I saw that needed fixing in the city,” Smith said about the housing issue. “It’s our most persistent problem. We had three decades of, essentially, a development moratorium in Ithaca, and what that led to was owner-occupied housing being flipped into rental housing, and that started on the streets around College Avenue and started to ripple out to the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Lifting the ceiling and allowing growth back in the heart of Collegetown, Smith argues, has started to alleviate the pressure on the outskirts of town for more rental housing. He himself has lived in rental housing that was desperately in need of work and had questionable safety conditions. Comparing the price of these places to what he used to pay for back home in Rochester drove home the need for a wider variety of quality, affordable housing in Ithaca.
For Smith, affordable housing and the opportunities that it presents is a personal issue.
“For me, creating a community that’s inclusive to all incomes, and that we’re not just putting them in one area in the North Side, or one area in the South Side, making sure they’re woven into the fabric of our community the same way anyone else would be, is really important,” Smith said.
Growing up in Rochester he was lucky enough to meet people from many different backgrounds who mentored him and showed him what opportunities were available outside of his neighborhood. When he was young, he wanted to be a policeman because they were the authority figures in his life. Later in life, he thought he wanted to be an attorney after meeting one, taking that idea all the way to college. Although he didn’t end up becoming an attorney, the interaction sent him on a path he otherwise would not have taken.
“That whole neighborhood was my world up until fifth or sixth grade. If I had just stayed in that sphere I don’t know where I’d be,” he said. “So, I think we need to make sure we’re not isolating low-income Americans in those spheres.”
Pushback to development and affordable housing is nothing new, but Smith said that now residents who say they are in favor of development are sharing concerns about traffic. Now is the time, he said, to have voices on council who have a laser focus on the vision of an affordable, high-quality city, and will keep moving in that direction even as there is pushback.
Much of the pushback has to do with concerns that development will detract from the unique character of the city. But stopping development isn’t going to protect that, Smith argues. Controlling it will.
Like his colleagues on council, Smith would like to see Cornell University, his other employer (Smith is the Assistant Director of Development at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration), give more money to the City of Ithaca. It’s something he hears from his constituents when they aren’t talking to him about development.
“If you just look at a ration of what they give compared to the size of the endowment, it doesn’t even compare to the other Ivy Leagues,” Smith said.
He would like to see the University invest more in local transportation. What he does appreciate about Cornell is that even though the school won’t cut the city a check to go straight to the general fund, it is willing to invest in the city in other ways, like the redesign of the Schwartz Center.
Since running seven years ago, he is proud of the development in both Collegetown and downtown that he has supported that has come to be. During several contentious debates about historical designation, Smith argued for a higher bar for what counts as historical designation. Two key sites in his ward will be fully utilized for housing, office space, or retail that otherwise would have been underutilized had they been given designation. He understands that this won’t be a very popular position to take with many Ithacans, but he’s proud of how those conversations turned out.
An ongoing issue that he would like to see more discussion about at council is a contract for the Ithaca Police Department and the city. Figuring out the appropriate staffing levels is the key, he said.
“It’s a problem that every organization has,” he said. “The staff, their imperative is to ask for more support and more people to help them with their work. And the administration’s imperative is to keep costs down, and those two things can be in direct conflict.”
Safety is the biggest component of the budget and needs to be addressed. Following a common theme, Smith knows that transportation is another issue that the council will have to continue addressing. Bikes and scooters may be helpful but they aren’t the end goal. Smith wants the city to create a transportation philosophy to help guide future investments and development, beyond just bike lanes and LimeBikes.
“I think BikeShare, in general, is fantastic,” he said. “But, a lot of Silicon Valley companies talk like their main goal is to serve society and to improve society in some way. But their main goal is profit.”
While Smith does see LimeBikes having a positive impact in the area, he wants the city to work with the company to improve the local transportation system, but remember that it is a for-profit company and treat it with the expectations that come with that. He would like to see reimbursement for the staff time and impact that having bike sharing in the city has on the community.
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