Tompkins County Legislature Building

At Tuesday’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting, the county’s leading governing body will try once again to pick a chair to lead them for the next legislative year after deadlocking on the decision two weeks ago.  

Legislators Mike Lane and Anna Kelles are both running for the position. At the first meeting of the year, the two tied with seven votes, and even after several re-votes a decision couldn’t be reached. Due to an interpretation of municipal law by Tompkins County Attorney Jonathan Wood, a vice chair was not selected either and will need to be chosen via another vote. 

Most of the people spoken to for this story insist that the chair stalemate, and the position of chair itself, is more about personality than about politics. That’s exemplified by a glance at who voted for who, as the votes didn’t fall anywhere close to party lines: Lane, generally considered a moderate, counted progressives like Deb Dawson and Shawna Black among his supporters, along with others. On the other hand, Kelles, certainly considered a progressive legislator, had support from the body’s Republican members Glenn Morey, David McKenna and Mike Sigler, as well as former chair Martha Robertson, among others. After four separate votes at the meeting earlier this month, nobody had budged. 

There are two ways to look at the current situation in the legislature. At least one legislator, Dan Klein, views it as an example of the rumored in-fighting and personality clashes that have evolved over the last several months among the legislature’s 14 members. Meanwhile, fellow legislator Anna Kelles portrayed the current chair selection process as necessary and beneficial discomfort that will eventually lead to a more thoroughly-discussed outcome, whatever that outcome may be. When legislating, Kelles said, honesty with each other is required to avoid the kind of confusion that inhibits progress.

“When you have a lot of people who are trying to make big decisions about big things and people have different opinions, you’re going to get a lot of tension,” Kelles said. “The job is inherently tense [...] But honestly, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that everyone has the courage to be honest and bring it up. It’s not something we’re washing over, there’s a willingness to have this conversation out publicly.”

Sinking into whatever tension has been created by the chair vote, or that which just naturally exists, Kelles said, could be a net positive for the group. And, as Sigler echoed in his post-meeting press release recap, democracy can at times be messy; that can, in turn, be good in the long run. 

Meanwhile, Klein said he felt like the episode was emblematic of larger issues among the legislature that aren’t exactly political, but have divided the group regardless. Over the last year, Klein said, he’s felt that morale on the legislature was “very low.” He said he feels the legislature is the most divided it has been since he was first elected in 2014. 

“Absolutely,” Klein said. “I truly think it’s 90 percent personality and power struggles. In the end we all have one vote. [...] I really don’t think it has anything to do with progressive or conservative or anything like that.”

He’s seen resentment and personal squabbles take over a larger portion of the debate culture, he said, something that he again blamed on personalities and leadership in the legislature. There have been some publicly tense moments over the past year or so, at least compared to the normal function of the Tompkins County Legislature. With a Democratic voting advantage of 11-3, there usually aren’t many very contentious debates, and the legislature is generally in agreement on most issues. But in August, tempers did moderately flare during the extended discussion centered on whether to pursue a second study on co-locating the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Ithaca Police Department. 

Robertson called any tension on the legislature a product of the “vigorous debate.” After serving as chair for 6 of the last 10 years, Robertson announced late last year she would be stepping away from the position, so Sigler has been named chair temporarily until Lane or Kelles is chosen. It’s the first time that a temporary chair has been needed for a second meeting since 2013. If 30 days passes after the first meeting, the Tompkins County Clerk, Maureen Reynolds, would choose a temporary chair who would serve indefinitely until a permanent chair is successfully approved by vote by the legislature. 

Robertson said she was stepping back from the post because she simply felt like she’d had enough time at the helm. She named the county’s new judge seat, the massive airport renovation and the state’s relocation of its Department of Transportation facility from the Ithaca waterfront to Warren Road (which is pending) as some of her proudest accomplishments, but also indicative of the traits needed in a chair. She expressed confidence that things would “work themselves out” regarding the vote.

“It’s not about being passive and letting things happen, or letting the staff do all the work,” Robertson said, noting that she’s supporting Kelles’ candidacy for the chair position. “The chair of the legislature really needs to be out front and carrying the message of Tompkins County, of what we’ve accomplished and what we need from New York State.”

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