By Rob Montana
While incumbent alderpersons Seph Murtagh (2nd Ward, Democratic and Working Families ballot lines), Donna Fleming (3rd Ward, Democratic line), Graham Kerslick (4th Ward, Democratic ballot line) and Deborah Mohlenhoff (5th Ward, Democratic line) are unopposed in their re-election bids for four-year terms, Cynthia Brock is facing a challenge from two people as she seeks re-election to her 1st Ward seat on Common Council. Voters in the 5th Ward also will decide between three people to fill the remaining two years of Josephine Martell’s term after she left the post upon moving from the ward.
To get to know the candidates in the contested races better, Tompkins Weekly asked them all a few questions about issues facing the city and what they would bring to the Common Council if elected.
Cynthia Brock – 1st Ward
Running on the Democratic and Working Families ballot lines, Brock is seeking her third term on the Common Council. A member of the Planning & Economic Development Committee, she is also chairperson of the special joint committee that governs the Ithaca Area Waste Water Treatment Facility, is on the Tompkins County Water Resources Council and the Cayuga Lake Watershed Intermunicipal Organization. Previously, she served as Council liaison to the Parks Commission, Shade Tree Advisory Commission, Public Art Commission, and Cable Access Network Advisory Committee. Brock also has served as member and chair of the GIAC Board of Directors. Prior to joining Council, she served on the City Board of Public Works, and as co-organizer of the Beverly J. Martin playground build.
Tompkins Weekly: What is the top issue facing the City of Ithaca?
Cynthia Brock: The role of City government is to provide for the essential needs of a community – from public safety to infrastructure and clean water, from arts and recreation, to protecting streams and natural areas, from youth and senior programming, to planning and zoning for future development, from quality of life protections, to special events. Ithaca is known for reflecting the values and priorities of its residents, and I am confident the growth we are seeing is a reflection of the confidence that people have in city government.
We demand a high level of service from all our departments. Our top issue is how do we fund and support these systems in the face of a state-mandated tax cap, limited state funding, increasing costs, and aging infrastructure. How do we serve our public, maintain our parks, streets and services, and beautify and enhance our city and to do so in a way that not only meets our expectations, but also doesn’t place an oversized burden on the most vulnerable in our community and city tax payers?
We must find new funding sources and partnerships so that we can distribute the financial burden over a broader area. Part of that will include asking other municipalities to contribute money or management. Here is one example – our city parks, natural areas and recreational programs are community treasures and destination landmarks and they draw visitors, residents and users from outside the city regularly. The demand, use, and wear and tear on our resources far outstrips the city’s ability to maintain them with the funding and staff that we currently have. Conversations have begun to examine how the county and other area municipalities can share in the stewardship and vision for our parks and recreational resources.
TW: Why are you running for re-election to Common Council?
CB: Governance is not a sprint, but an endurance sport. It takes tenacity and dedication to gather information from various sources and to build institutional knowledge about the political, structural and financial landscape that defines what can, and should be done. The First Ward is large and complex, and reflects every facet of the city. During my six years on Council I have had the opportunity to learn about the complex needs of the First Ward, and its intricate neighborhoods.
I am running because I want to grow the population of permanent residents in the city, and to grow our economic and cultural diversity. On South Hill, Spencer Road, and West Hill, we need zoning that supports owner-occupied and family residences in the face of pressures to develop student-oriented housing. We must protect residential areas for those seeking a quieter environment, away from the noise of bars, where people can walk and bike safely, grow and age in place, and feel connected to each other. Second, I will advocate for safe housing, protected from Ithaca’s industrial history. I will continue to work to bring much needed environmental testing and resources to the Nate’s Floral Estates area, to ensure that the area is safe for residents and the environment given its long history as a waste storage site. I will be keeping a close eye on Chain Works (the Emerson/Morse Chain facility) and will work to make sure that project is appropriate for residents and neighbors.
Finally, I am committed to preserving and protecting the Cayuga Lake watershed. Recent harmful algae blooms on Cayuga Lake and throughout the region have brought to the forefront not only the fragility of our ecosystem, but also its importance in our quality of life and our economic vitality. Through appropriate industrial, agricultural, and storm water management, and monitoring of discharges into the lake and streams, we can work to improve and protect our most valued and fragile resource.
TW: What makes you the best candidate?
CB: During my two terms on Common Council, I feel that I have proven myself to be an independent voice, unafraid of speaking out on issues that are controversial and against the powers-that-be. My constituents know that I will take the time to research the issues and read the materials, and ask the tough questions. I strive to listen mindfully to those I represent and work with, and I try hard to understand different perspectives. Once I have decided on a course of action and a way forward, I will do what I can to implement that solution at all levels of government.
Anthony Hayton – 1st Ward
Running on the Operation West Hill ballot line, Hayton has previously worked to help small businesses grow in Brooklyn, and does outreach with neighborhood youth.
Tompkins Weekly: Why are you running for Common Council?
Anthony Hayton: I am running for Common Council to enact change in the City of Ithaca. I would like to clean up and rid the city of the poison being sold to kids and ruining families. Also, to give kids and adults fun programs and program incentives to stay out of trouble.
TW: What is the top issue facing the City of Ithaca?
AH: In my opinion, the top issue facing the City of Ithaca is the drug epidemic. This is an issue that cannot easily be dealt with. It is an issue that will take a lot focus and hard work to fix but it can be done
AH: I believe I am the best candidate because I know what it takes to clean up and improve neighborhoods that are in need. I have grown up in some of the worst neighborhoods in New York City. I have spent eight years in the Marine Corps and have helped improve the quality of life in many communities and families.
James Lukasavage – 1st Ward
Running on the Ithaca New Cynics ballot line, Lukasavage has run for city office several times in recent years. He could not be reached for comment by press time.
Laura Lewis – 5th Ward
Having lived in Fall Creek for more than 30 years, Lewis – who is running on the Democratic and Neighborhood Partners ballot lines – has volunteered with numerous local organizations, including being past chairperson and city chairperson of the 5th Ward Democratic Committee, and has served on committees with the Day Care Council, the Sciencenter, and the Ithaca Women’s March. She also has served on the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services Board of Directors for almost 18 years.
Laura Lewis: I want to take my long-standing community involvement and my experience with local organizations to another level by serving residents of the 5th Ward. There are so many talented people in our city who dedicate their energy and expertise to making our community a vibrant place to live, whether that is sorting books for the Friends of the Library, beautifying our neighborhoods with citizen gardeners and the mural projects, or serving on committees and boards of the many not for profit agencies in Ithaca. I want to be involved in working with members of Common Council as well as other civic-minded community members and neighbors to meet the challenges ahead. Given limited resources of time and money, it is challenging for any citizen to decide how to get involved. The rewards of being involved, however, and the ability to have a voice in the life of our city are my key motivating reasons for running for Common Council.
LL: There is, to my mind, more than one top issue facing the City of Ithaca in the next few years. First, the need for more housing that is affordable to low and moderate income people who want to live in the city is a pressing issue. Yet another issue that must be faced with creativity, sensitivity and a push for local, state and national funding is the opioid epidemic that is affecting so many families. Tackling this public health issue will require partnering with multiple agencies and researching best practices being employed by other communities. As I have been talking with neighbors in the 5th Ward, there is also concern for making our city streets and sidewalks safe for bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers.
LL: I have demonstrated my ability to work effectively within a wide range of organizations as well as with people whose background is different from mine. My experience as a first-generation college student makes me keenly aware of all the benefits I’ve received in my life and of the value of hard work. My brother is a retired police officer, his son (my nephew) is a police officer, and my son is a firefighter medic. I am grateful for the work of these dedicated professionals and they inspire me to contribute to my community in whatever way I can. Leadership, dedication, judgement and compassion are the qualities I bring to all that I do. Many others have believed in my abilities, as has been demonstrated by the positions I’ve held. Friends and neighbors know that I will listen and I will always roll up my sleeves to contribute to the community I love.
Melissa Hall – 5th Ward
Running on the Fall Creek Voice ballot line, Hall has worked for the Tompkins County Assigned Counsel Program for the past three years; between time in Ithaca and Philadelphia, she has nearly a decade of social work experience working with the homeless. Currently, Hall is a member of the Fall Creek Elementary PTA,Ithaca Community Garden and master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension, and is a former Ithaca Youth Bureau assistant soccer coach.
Melissa Hall: I am concerned about the future of Ithaca because for many longtime residents, like myself, it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue to live here due to the cost of housing. Home prices and rental prices keep going up at a pace that exceeds wage increases and the affordable housing solutions that have been proposed to date are neither adequate nor happening fast enough. Something needs to change and new ideas need to be brought to the table. We not only need more financing for affordable housing but we need to allow homebuilders to build homes that actually meet the needs of current and prospective residents. This may mean making changes to local zoning. I am also concerned about the opioid crisis and how it is affecting Ithaca’s families and our quality of life. My experience in working with the populations of people harmed by this epidemic would be valuable to Common Council.
MH: HOUSING. Although Ithaca is facing many issues – the opiate epidemic, crime, wages not meeting the cost of living, housing is the base to stability for all. Housing is a basic need, without it everything else is threatened. While there are many good people working to bring affordable housing to Ithaca, these efforts focus too much on obtaining grants or other government funding for building large apartment complexes. We need other solutions as well, such as zoning changes that allow for different kinds of homes to accommodate different people. Preserving the character of Fall Creek is important too and using a combination of rehabilitating existing homes and form based zoning, both of which preserve neighborhood character, would have an impact on maintaining affordability for the average working family.
MH: I was born and raised in Ithaca, I care deeply about my hometown, and I am not a politician. My life experience and perspective as a working-class Ithacan who is raising a family is something that would be good to have on Common Council.
My skill is in advocating for people, something that I have been doing for over a decade. This requires me to come up with creative, holistic, and unconventional – “thinking out of the box” solutions. Out of the box thinking is what we need at this time because conventional solutions to the big issues facing Ithaca, like housing, are not enough. We need to start focusing on bringing in development that is based on exactly what our community needs, whether it be housing for the elderly, students, single people, or single families – people of all income brackets and all age groups and family compositions.
We also need good listeners on Common Council. Something that I have enjoyed the most through this process is reaching out to my neighbors and hearing their perspective, concerns, and thoughts on how they think we can make Ithaca better. Something I enjoyed about my professional work with the homeless was helping people get to a better place through coaching and counseling. My current work, consulting with funders or other providers of public defender programs, as well as public defender support agencies, is applicable to what Common Council does because like the current council members, I constantly evaluate whether programs are working as intended. I would like to apply all of these skills to help improve my community.
Aryeal Jackson – 5th Ward
On the Representation ballot line, Jackson has served as a moderator and facilitator for a 2,000-plus online support group for mamas, helping lay the foundation for it to become a non-profit that facilitates online and in person support. She also has worked for WRFI Community Radio, an all-volunteer organization, and helps organize events that support local fundraising efforts.
Aryeal Jackson: I’m running because I have something to contribute. I have a perspective that’s currently missing from what Council has currently. I am a fresh voice that values information and communication. I am a young single mother facing issues and struggles that many in Ithaca face. I’m not going to wait until my life is perfect to serve a community I love. I love to ask questions, dig deeper and look at the full picture before casting votes that have lasting impacts on our everyday lives.
AJ: Development. In that I mean all the things that go along with that. Housing, living wage employment, local labor, students, taxes, and holding fast to that which makes Ithaca the amazing city it is. It’s all rolled into one.
AJ: My fresh perspective and innovative problem solving. I will do the research, ask the experts and then bring that information to my neighbors so that we can work out the details before I cast a vote that will affect them. No one will always get their way, but working as a group, as a community we can’t lose.
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While there are some contested races in the City of Ithaca, the Town of Ithaca’s incumbents are all running for re-election, unopposed in their bids. Councilpersons Richard DePaolo, Tee-Ann Hunter and Patricia Leary are on the Democratic ballot line; Leary is also on the Working Families ballot line. Justice Jim Salk is on the Democratic line.
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