"If Unity House had come to the Danby town hall and told us, honestly, we would not have been as furious. We would have been anxious, but not furious,” said a woman at the Danby town hall meeting Monday night. At issue was the non-profit agency’s purchase of a house on Nelson Road with a plan to house therein two men with sex offender status. As the meeting wore on, Unity House director Liz Smith and other officials were able to, somewhat, answer people’s questions about the decision and the relative safety of having the two men in their neighborhood. The two men, whose IQ is 70 or under, committed their crimes 25 and 30 years ago; one man is 75 years old. Both are under 24 hour supervision seven days a week, 365 days a year, Smith explained.
Officer Kevin Cowen, whose job it is to supervise all the sex offenders in Tompkins County (around 165 individuals), explained that these two men are under 24-hour supervision (the Nelson Road house will also have alarms on all doors and windows) not because of their crimes, but because of their developmental disabilities. Individuals of normal cognitive ability with similar SO status live all over Tompkins County.
While people at the meeting were not entirely satisfied with the answers they were receiving, elsewhere in the county, other community members weren’t entirely happy with public information, either.
In Trumansburg, parents and community members demanded answers from the school district after an incident in which a deer carcass with a frightening note on it was dumped in the high school parking lot. School superintendent Michael McGuire was roundly criticized for not releasing enough information about the incident early enough, and finally did issue a long letter giving all the details; he also held a public meeting at the school, where about 30 angry residents showed up.
In Ithaca, the county public safety committee meeting was full of members of the public looking for answers about the Hornbrook Road standoff in Danby this January, which ended with the death of David Cady, who was wanted on a DWI warrant. Information in that case is still incomplete, as the autopsy report has not been issued, so expect public resentment to continue for a while: many people feel that the police response was out of proportion to the situation, and want reassurance that SWAT response will be tempered in the future.
All three incidents, however, bring up one central point: withholding information from the public because it might upset people only backfires in the end. It may be that the pace of information has picked up in the internet age, and people expect answers sooner than they used to. In the Danby/Unity House situation, Unity House director of residential services Amy Santibianco said they tried contacting the neighbors as soon as they knew- but, that was only last Wednesday. They didn’t have time to contact everyone who would be concerned, and town board members were caught off guard by the revelation that the house would be a dwelling for sex offenders. “People heard about it from their neighbors,” said town board member Rebecca Brenner. “This should have been a community conversation.”
Her words were followed by an outburst of applause- the only sign of approbation in an otherwise tense and ugly public meeting. In the end, all three meetings- Trumansburg, Danby, and Tompkins County- broke up peacefully, and people went away grumbling. But, they got answers, and in the end that was all they were asking for. •