Amid budget vote, Ithaca mayor, city attorney say city employees caused ‘obscene spectacle’ at Common Council meeting

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City Attorney Ari Levine delivered an explosive statement ahead of the Ithaca Common Council budget vote on Nov. 9. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

Before approving Ithaca’s 2023 budget, Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis joined city attorney Ari Levine to condemn some of the comments made by city employees, alderpersons and community members during a Common Council meeting earlier this month. 

During the Council’s Nov. 2 meeting, city employees packed City Hall to express dissatisfaction with the city’s handling of certain union contract negotiations. Workers from nearly all bargaining units were present, though only a handful of the contracts are under negotiation.

Some workers said their departments were understaffed and complained of wage stagnation, citing a line in the mayor’s proposed budget narrative that seemed to suggest the city had not budgeted for wage increases.

Levine said this claim amounted to a misinterpretation of the budget, and the proposed budget did indeed include money elsewhere for what he called “reasonable increases” in pay.

During the tumultuous Nov. 2 meeting, some speakers also called on Levine, who is involved in the city’s contract negotiations, to step down.

Even some Common Council members, like 1st Ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock, criticized Levine for his role in contract negotiations. 

“I don’t like that the approach has been taken that our city attorney should treat our staff like the enemy,” Brock said.

The attorney was also the subject of complaints from Luis Aguirre-Torres, who recently resigned from his role as Ithaca’s director of sustainability. Aguirre-Torres said he had resigned in part because he had received significant pushback from Levine on implementation of the Ithaca Green New Deal.

In the aftermath of the Nov. 2 meeting, then-acting Mayor Laura Lewis released a statement affirming her support for Levine as city attorney. Lewis defended Levine again this week in a short statement she read to the Common Council.

“I was appalled to hear employee morale issues, which are admittedly in need of being addressed, twisted last Wednesday into offensive and unfounded personal attacks on our city’s negotiating team and particularly the city attorney,” Lewis said.

In his own strongly worded statement to Common Council, Levine said some comments at the Nov. 9 meeting amounted to “rumor-fueled character assassination,” though he did thank the speakers who “spoke respectfully and thoughtfully.”

Levine also had strong words for Common Council members who scrambled to apologize to workers after the heated public exchange.

“A critical mass of this Common Council commended the most outrageous and threatening of the speakers for so-called bravery last week,” Levine said.

Levine also responded to previous proposals from some Common Council members, like outgoing 4th Ward Alderperson Patrick Mehler, to amend the city’s budget to address workers’ concerns.

The attorney said any proposed increases in pay and benefits would necessitate further increases to the city’s tax levy, which Mehler and other alderpersons said they had wanted to avoid. Ithaca’s 2023 budget, as originally proposed, was already significantly larger than previous years and included a near 10% increase in the city’s tax levy; the version that passed last week adds an additional $634,753.

“I hope the irony was not lost on the public last week as Council baselessly condemned the city labor contract negotiations and minutes later, wrung counsel’s hand over a near 10% increase in their tax levy,” Levine said, addressing council members at the Nov. 9 meeting. “Are you ready to pursue a 20% increase instead?”

Immediately after Levine’s statement, the Common Council went into executive session for over four hours.

Upon their return from the closed session, council members took just 23 minutes to speed through some final budget amendments before approving the full $90 million budget.