Even after it has been approved, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service’s (INHS) Stone Quarry Apartments project continues to polarize city officials. During a City Administration Committee public meeting on Wednesday, May 21, use of official Common Council letterhead was called into question after First Ward Alderpersons Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal sent a letter to New York State expressing their opposition to Stone Quarry Apartments.
The letter prompted Mayor Svante Myrick to propose a resolution to Common Council that states, “It is inappropriate for Common Council letterhead to be used to express positions not supported by a majority of Common Council,” and that alderpersons are not allowed to use Common Council letterhead without prior authorization.
The letter in question, sent to New York State Homes & Community Renewal President Matthew Nelson in Albany, begins with the following:
“As Alderpersons representing the City of Ithaca First Ward, George McGonigal and I are united in our opposition to the Stone Quarry Apartment Project, located at 400 Spencer Road, Ithaca, NY, whose funding proposal has been put forward by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services & Pathstone Development.
“We are writing to ask that this project NOT be approved under the NY State Unified Funding Program, as the project location is inappropriate for a development of this size, and the existing infrastructure is inadequate to serve the dramatic increase in population this development will bring to the area.”
Myrick told Albany that the Stone Quarry Apartment project is his “top priority housing project in the city,” and it is supported by “an overwhelming majority of the City of Ithaca Common Council.” He urged NYS Homes and Community Renewal to “not let a small, but active, minority of the community and Common Council derail this project.”
That minority surfaced again during the public comment segment on May 21. Concern from residents, in addition to further discussion from city administration, ultimately led to Myrick’s suggested resolution being tabled for revision. The resolution will again be discussed for adoption in June. Several neighboring residents of the Stone Quarry Apartment project—whose view Brock and McGonigal shared—spoke against the resolution.
Spencer Road resident Benjamin Kirk read a letter from his neighbors, James Elrod and Brian Erie, as neither was able to attend the meeting.
“In this particular case, it is very clear that Cynthia and George were speaking only on behalf of our ward and neighborhood,” Kirk read on behalf of Elrod and Erie, “not the entire council. This strange piece of legislative micromanagement is out of character with an open and accessible government. If the intent of this resolution is to shield the entire council from the concerns/opinions of an individual member, then create individualized letterhead for each council member, so that he/she may continue to advocate for the members of his/her district without causing undue distress to other Council members who may not share the same concerns.
“We are particularly troubled by the implication that this resolution could be used to stifle alternative opinions on council. Each council member is democratically elected and is charged with representing the interests of his/her district. If he/she cannot, at certain times and judiciously, use the leverage that comes with membership on council to advocate for the community, then there is no need to pretend that the government is a functioning democracy.”
Both McGonigal and Brock thanked residents who came to speak in their defense. However, they had different interpretations of what the resolution stemming from their actions signified. McGonigal believes Mayor Svante Myrick has an idea that will quickly solve this type of situation from reoccurring.
“I will say that, in my opinion, a resolution to this problem has been created,” he said. “The mayor has suggested that we all have individual letterhead. To me, that solves the problem.”
Brock was less convinced, and believed the fallout from the letter could speak to a larger, more troubling issue.
“I do disagree a little bit with George,” she said, “in the sense that I don’t think it’s about the letterhead. I think it was, to a certain extent, the discomfort that comes with dissent from those that want to present that things come forward and have the support of the broadest community.”
Brock’s husband, Raymond Craib, spoke during the privilege of the floor portion of the meeting. He elaborated on that notion:
“I find the impetus of this resolution troubling,” Craib said. “The letter clearly stated the opinions expressed in the letter were those of the authors and not the Common Council as a whole. Should it not have been written on letterhead? Do future letters pertaining to Common Council business, pertaining to issues directly relevant to your constituents now have to be written on personal stationary? Would complaints have been forthcoming if the letter had been complimentary rather than critical? It saddens me to say I think not.”
Local attorney Raymond Schlather sent an email to Myrick and the Common Council regarding the letterhead issue, in which he states his opposition “is based in constitutional concerns about prior restraint of free speech” and that he takes “no position with respect to the letter that apparently sparked this debate.”
“Every member of Common Council, as a city official, has a constitutional right to communicate and to speak,” Schlather said in his email, “without restriction, both publicly and privately. Any attempted regulation of such speech is subject to any regulation, that regulation must be limited to only those time and manner burdens that are least intrusive. The restraint of free speech, even the ‘chilling’ of free speech, is forbidden. However well-intentioned, the suggested resolution unconstitutionally interferes with the first amendment rights of each of you.”
Alderperson Ellen McCollister (D-3rd ) said she had no concerns—now or ever—of Common Council members being stripped of their freedom to speak their minds.
“I just wanted to tell people,” she said, “having served on this body now for five years, there is not a moment where I have ever felt muzzled, or stifled, or punished for expressing my opinion. And I am someone who frequently takes a different opinion from the group.”
The dispute over Common Council letterhead is the latest chapter in the Stone Quarry Apartment saga. The project, which has ultimately been approved and is still moving forward, is a 35-unit apartment complex comprised of one three-story building and two rows of two-story townhomes. Its location is in a community with a population of nearly 50 people. Upon its completion, the apartment complex is expected to add more than 100 residents, essentially tripling the area’s current population. This dynamic has caused consistent opposition from the existing residents of Spencer Road throughout the review process. •