As the multi-hour public comment period came to a close during the Nov. 2 Ithaca Common Council meeting, the City of Ithaca’s former Director of Sustainability, Luis Aguirre Torres, confronted the Common Council about the issues that he experienced during his time working in City Hall that led to his resignation.
Torres told the Common Council, “Two weeks ago, I resigned my position as director of sustainability. And the reason I did that was because the environment in City Hall didn't permit me to continue working with the conditions that I was being offered.” He continued saying, “Since I joined the city, I was tasked with operationalizing a huge ambition, and we did that in such a way that we received recognition from the White House from the World Economic Forum from the United Nations, from the Office of the Governor from the Public Service Commission. From all experts across the country. But that reception was never found in City Hall.”
According to Torres, he never received the support that the Ithaca Green New Deal needed — and he needed more support from the members of the Common Council. Torres said, “I didn't get this from the Common Council because they did not do the proper oversight on the people that were trying to control the Green New Deal.”
“There was a mandate as a result of the resolution. In that resolution, it said that the city needed to achieve carbon neutrality and address climate justice, we needed to do so much. But without support, it is impossible to do,” said Torres.
According to Torres, his experience in City Hall took a negative turn following the resignation of former Mayor Svante Myrick — who originally appointed Torres to his position as Director of Sustainability. During a recent interview, Torres said, “things became difficult, people were confused and nobody knew what to do.”
Following the departure of former Mayor Myrick, Torres explained that a power vacuum of sorts was created and filled by the Chief of Staff and the Director of Planning who started “making decisions that perhaps we’re not for them to make.” He says these decisions created more stress and made it more difficult for departments to communicate.
Torres also explained that he felt challenged and disrespected by City Attorney Ari Lavine. According to Torres, “he was very clear to me that he was there to make sure that I did things the way that he thought was right.” Additionally, he says that Lavine was “annoyed” and “concerned” about the level of popularity of the Green New Deal. Torres has said that following a meeting where residents called-in to support the Green New Deal the city attorney told him, “you cannot build your own constituency.”
Torres explained that the city attorney’s job is not to dictate policy, but to “ensure that the city is covered and protected.” However, when Torres began advocating for policies such as community choice aggregation he says that the city attorney “tried to come to my office to talk me into doing something else.” Torres says, “that created a very complicated environment for me.”
He continued saying that as he realized that the alignment between the planning director, city attorney and mayor was stronger than the alignment with the rest of city government, he began to think that staying in his position as Director of Sustainability would be difficult.
Torres has said that racism played a role in preventing him from doing his job. “I was the only one who was treated in this particular way. Any other white person working for the mayor wouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops” said Torres.
He continued saying, “the problem with racism is that it’s distracting. They want to distract you from your work. And that was the conservative concerted effort not only by the city attorney, but by others. And I believe that it is not for me to be distracted.”
Torres says that he is aware of the severity of these allegations and that he shared his complaints with Human Resources, the head of planning and the mayor before making them public.
In a press release issued following the November 2 meeting where Torres shared his comments, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis said that she was “appalled to hear undeniably genuine employee morale issues twisted into offensive and unfounded personal attacks on the City’s negotiating team, and particularly City Attorney Ari Lavine.” Lewis continued saying, “Ari’s dedication to the City across his decade of public service has been exemplary”
In response to the Acting Mayor’s press release Torres sent out a tweet saying, “The Mayor of Ithaca chose the City Attorney over her own Common Council and over the workers that came together to demand better of her. We need new leadership and for the City Attorney to go. Let’s make sure he no longer obstructs the Green New Deal.” Torres ends the tweet telling his 2,697 followers to vote for the Acting Mayor’s progressive challenger, Katie Sims.
Torres closed his remarks to the Common Council saying, “I really challenge the city council to really take action. You have heard from people and you know what needs to happen. People like me will not come back to work at City Hall under those conditions, talented people would not come back to work under those conditions. Something needs to change. And I'd really invite the city council to dig deep, and then really try to understand what we need to do to be better.”