Anke Wessels

Anke Wessels is the executive director of the Center for Transformative Action.

The Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI) and the Center for Transformative Action (CTA) wish to express our frustration with the Reimagining Public Safety Investigation Report by attorney Kristen Smith and the responses from Mayor Laura Lewis (City of Ithaca News, Dec. 8, 2022) and Alderperson Cynthia Brock (Ithaca Times, Dec. 15, 2022).

We wholeheartedly agree that governments must have checks and balances to manage and control their property and finances openly and transparently. We also want safeguards to be in place to prevent government officials from receiving gifts from private entities as a quid pro quo to further private interest over public. Neither of these concerns pertain to DCI or CTA’s role in supporting the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) Working Group process, despite continued allegations of potential wrongdoing.

The grant that DCI received from the Park Foundation provided honoraria to community representatives and payment to the Co-leads of the RPS Working Group. The grant funds were ours. They were not for the City and therefore not for the City to manage and control. As a community partner, we stepped up to provide fair and just compensation to Working Group members the City wouldn't pay. Why do this? We are a social justice organization dedicated to supporting communities that have been historically marginalized to engage and take leadership in civic life for positive social change. The grant furthered this charitable purpose of inclusion and equity. Although omitted from Smith’s report, Brock’s complaint, and the local media’s reporting, the community representatives of the Working Group were the only members not paid from tax-payer funds to participate. Representatives of the Ithaca Police Department, Common Council, and City staff all participated as part of their employment, and thus were paid for their time on the Working Group. Providing honoraria to the people whose voices and expertise Governor Cuomo mandated in Executive Order 203 be centered was, therefore, a matter of equity.

Let us be clear, EO 203 stipulates that the participation of people with lived experience is integral to the legitimacy of the RPS outcomes. Compensating them for contributing their time and knowledge is good practice. Therefore, CTA and DCI helped ensure, not undermine, the integrity of the RPS Working Group recommendations.

As professionals, we have experience with and respect for the confidentiality required when holding conversations with participants who have unequal power and fraught relationships. The assurance of confidentiality can foster trust and honesty. As a matter of professional integrity, we did not communicate with any of the Working Group members, including the Co-leads, about their RPS work. We didn’t know who the community representatives were until we received their invoices weeks after their last workgroup meeting. We did not influence their participation, as Ms. Smith acknowledges, or appear to have, as Ms. Brock insists. Since the community representatives were not designated City Officials, our actions also did not cause a breach of the City’s ethics rules concerning gifts to government officials.

It is true that in order to write the grant budget and narrative we communicated with trusted City staff. To budget for the honoraria expense, we had to verify information about the number of community representatives and planned meetings that only City staff had. We included in our budget 50% of the facilitation fee for the Co-leads as a cost-sharing approach based on an understanding that the City’s budget was suffering a pandemic-related shortfall.

In order to provide a $10,000 honorarium to the Co-leads, CTA needed to put a contract in place. While Ms. Smith rightly points out as problematic the standard language in our vendor contract that asserts CTA’s ownership of the work developed, she failed to mention that the actual work plan detailed in the contract charged the Co-leads with developing a final plan and presentation for Common Council, not CTA. The contract’s timetable had benchmarks for interim presentations to Common Council, not CTA. The contract stated payment would be made in a lump-sum after a final presentation and report were delivered to Common Council, not spread out in installments with periodic check-ins or approval by CTA. Nothing in this description supports Brock’s supposition that the Co-leads’ work could have been “conducted at the direction and for the benefit of [CTA]” (Brock, Dec 15, 2022). Instead, it is clear that the contracted work was directed by the City and for the benefit of Common Council.

We agree with Alderperson Brock and Mayor Lewis that new policies and processes are needed to ensure that informal partnerships between nonprofits and the City are better-structured and to clarify when and whether workgroup and committee members should be paid for their time and expertise. What concerns us is that in doing so they will buckle down on the status quo rather than transform it; that the outcomes for local government and for the community will be less equitable rather than more.

More equitable outcomes would come from policies and processes that reduce the economic and logistical barriers for people with lived experience to participate in government workgroups and committees. Insisting they volunteer is an exclusionary, exploitative practice that perpetuates structural racism and classism, especially when those participating in their ‘professional’ capacity are being paid for their time. Other government entities recognize this inequity and have transformed their policies. We recommend that the City and County study and adapt the federal government best practices we shared with the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board as well as the May, 2022 guidelines from Washington State’s Office Of Equity.

More equitable outcomes would come from processes for increased, rather than decreased, partnerships with nonprofit organizations (NPOs). Research indicates that informal partnerships between NPOs and local governments represent a new paradigm and a “winning combination” for effective positive social change in communities (see Pozil & Hacker, 2017 pg. 67). In fact, these partnerships are considered essential in light of the many socioeconomic challenges that communities are facing (ibid). We strongly encourage Mayor Lewis and Common Council to study this research and develop structures to support such partnerships for the benefit of our community.

More equitable outcomes require rebuilding the trust that the adversarial investigations and inflammatory public statements have eroded. The majority of those targeted, whose integrity and honor have been questioned and whose contributions have been smeared, are people from racially and economically marginalized and under-represented identity groups. The former Mayor, the director of DCI, the Co-leads, and the majority of community participants are Black and Brown people whose interests EO 203 mandated municipalities to engage, center and respect. We cannot see this as other than a callous and reckless attempt to delay and obstruct the approval and implementation of the RPS Working Group’s recommendations by discrediting the community voices and chiseling the Co-leads out of their professional services fees. What a colossal act of bad faith not to honor the City’s promise and obligation to pay them.

To start on a path of repair, we request that Mayor Lewis, Alderperson Brock and the other members of Common Council apologize to those whose professionalism has been maligned and thank them for the time, effort, and good faith they dedicated to ensure the impartiality, unbiased nature, and deep integrity of the RPS Working Group process and findings

(1) comment

Karen Friedeborn

Thank you for telling the rest of the story. Interesting to know that there are federal guidelines about paying stipends for volunteer service that can transform representation on our local boards. This whole issue was especially damaging because the Reimagining Work Group had more diversity than I have ever seen on a city board. The disrespect shown to them will no doubt make it very unlikely that we will see this kind of representation in the future. I agree that formal apologies to people serving on the board is a good first step in rebuilding trust.

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