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Investigation of Ithaca police reform effort finds no likely ethics violations

Ithaca's Common Council voted to authorize the ethics investigation of it's landmark police reform effort after Alderperson Cynthia Brock voiced ethical concerns.
Megan Zerez
Ithaca's Common Council voted to authorize the ethics investigation into the city's landmark police reform effort after Alderperson Cynthia Brock voiced concerns.

An independent investigator identified several missteps by Ithaca’s former mayor and city employees during the city’s landmark police reform campaign. The report, released earlier this month, found that despite a lack of transparency, the missteps do not constitute an ethics violation.

One complaint, two investigations

The City of Ithaca commissioned a Syracuse based attorney to conduct the ethics investigation after Alderperson Cynthia Brock raised ethical concerns about Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety effort in April.

The city's investigation is one of two to come out of Brock's complaints; a group of county legislators on Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board is conducting the other.

In April, Brock alleged former Mayor Svante Myrick had improperly solicited funds from several outside organizations to support the police reform effort. In a letter, Brock also asked county legislators to determine whether potential ethics violations would invalidate the recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety working group.

After a months-long process, the group made several requests: civilian oversight of the police department, the addition of five unarmed first responders and more training for Ithaca Police Department officers. It did not recommend any cuts to the police department's personnel or budget, as some initially feared.

The group was comprised of city employees, police officers, elected officials and other Ithaca residents.

Brock's complaints drew criticism from Myrick and other supporters of the police reform effort, who called the investigation an attempt to distract from and derail the police reform process.

Among the critics is Hans Menos, of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE). The organization had donated time and expertise to Ithaca's police reform group. Menos said Brock sought to derail the police reform effort by making the allegations.

"A councilmember, in this case, is attempting to pull levers to delegitimize a process that was led by the community," Menos said.

Donations from non-profits

While he was mayor, Myrick accepted grants and pro bono consulting from non-profit organizations on behalf of the city, per the report. The donations were used to help offset costs and operate Ithaca's Reimagining Public Safety working group.

Myrick had briefly consulted with City Attorney Ari Lavine and Director of Human Resources Schelley Michele-Nunn before accepting the grants.

Grants from the Park Foundation were used to provide stipends to community members who participated in the Reimagining Public Safety working group.

The Center for Policing Equity, a think tank focused on police reform, provided extensive pro bono assistance and expertise throughout the police reform effort.

Kristen E. Smith, the attorney from Bond, Schoeneck & King who authored the report, wrote the city was legally allowed to accept the donated time and money. However, whether Myrick was explicitly prohibited from accepting them without buy in from Common Council is a legal gray area.

"The decision to accept [the Center for Policing Equity's] services should not have been made by Myrick alone, but by the Common Council," Smith wrote in the report.

Smith concluded, however, Myrick himself did not violate city or state ethics code, and recommended the city revise and clarify it's policy on gifting and solicitation to avoid future issues.

A lack of transparency but no "quid pro quo"

In an interview with WSKG, Brock said she felt that if the matter had been brought before Common Council, the city would not have agreed to accept the donations at all.

"If this process had been made transparent every step of the way, I don't believe it would have had support of the public or council," Brock said.

Brock said she felt the investigation was limited, in part because Smith did not have the power to subpoena Myrick. The former mayor was, however, interviewed as part of the investigation.

"Recognizing that there are those limitations, I guess it's not surprising to me that there wouldn't be evidence provided that would show that either former mayor Myrick or others received a financial payout in return for these arrangements," Brock said.

The report found no evidence of such a "quid pro quo" agreement between Myrick, the organizations or city officials.

"Protection to speak openly and honestly"

The report found that the Center for Policing Equity, which had provided extensive organizational support and subject matter expertise for the Reimagining Public Safety working group, had pushed for the group's meetings to be kept confidential. Smith writes such a decision is "directly contradictory to the concept of open government."

Menos said working group members had requested confidentiality because of the controversy of the reform effort. He said it is a very common request in many of the cities where CPE has assisted local police reform efforts.

"The community members that were playing a role here ultimately wanted some protections to speak openly and honestly," Menos said. "It was a diverse group which included council members, and included the police union and police officers."

The report said CPE had the potential to influence the Reimagining Public Safety working group, as Brock had alleged, though Smith writes there isn't definitive evidence it had actually done so.

"Given the nature of the group work that led to this outcome, it is impossible to pinpoint whether the outcome would have been materially different absent CPE's involvement," Smith wrote.

Smith notes that none of the working group members reported feeling pressured by CPE to vote one way or another.

Menos said his organization’s goal was to support the effort, not lead it.

In a statement, Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis said she wants the Common Council to take up legislation to clarify and amend the city's policies on gifting and solicitation, per Smith's recommendation.

You can read the full report online here, or download a PDF below.