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Entangled Reform

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Entangled Reform

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As cities improve conditions with climate reforms and police reforms, elected Alderperson of Ithaca’s 3rd Ward, Jeffrey F. Barken, reiterates the importance of free speech and a free press.

Ithaca is a city of nearly 31,000 inhabitants located in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York. It is also home to Cornell University. The municipality has made international news for its monumental efforts to implement a Green New Deal with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, and to assert a principled vision for ambitious police reform. While always controversial, the latter reform effort, known as “Reimagining Public Safety” (RPS) has suffered a series of setbacks as revelations of unethical conduct and potential corruption resulted in a county and internal city investigation.

Now, additional revelations that a county administrator allegedly has been laboring to control coverage of RPS in local publications further complicates the path forward. The below remarks to Ithaca’s Common Council by City Alderperson, and The Big Smoke Contributor, Jeffrey F. Barken offer a glimpse into this city’s deliberations on a contentious issue. For residents of a municipality who must consider the extent to which their free speech may be compromised, The Big Smoke publication has the unique ability to offer an outlet for independent voices, fulfilling the mission to be “a capital city for the 21st century in America.”

Remarks to Council 9/7/22
By Jeffrey F. Barken

Good evening, Mayor Lewis, Council Colleagues, and fellow Ithacans.

I’ve asked the privilege of the floor tonight to address something I find deeply troubling. It involves one of the most sacred principles of faith in our republic: the freedom of the press.

It has come to my attention that a County Administrator has, for some time now, been exercising improper influence over a local publication. We do not yet know for how long this official misconduct went on, or if the problem extends to other news outlets, but a pattern of abuse is strongly suggested.

“I want to AGAIN share concern…on the column that mentions Reimagining Public Safety,” I quote from the email that has now prompted several FOIL requests and independent investigations.

In this communique, the county official seeks to rein in remarks made by Trumansburg Mayor, Rordan Hart, in an article about our neighboring villages’ 150th anniversary.

“Mayor Hart makes some pretty bold assertions, backed up by the columnist” … (that are) “undermining OUR efforts,” the county official says.

Mayor Hart had stated in the article: “what we have seen as a result of (the Reimagining) initiative is the willful dismantling of necessary services.” He describes the growing inability of Ithaca’s police department (IPD) to adequately support EMS workers, and how this is straining the resources of neighboring municipalities. He is not wrong to say so.

Also on The Big Smoke

I myself reported in April on the early retirements of three high-ranking, decorated, and respected Ithaca Police Officers who all cited Reimagining Public Safety as the reason for their decision to leave. Early retirements continue to render new recruitment at IPD akin to building on a foundation of sand. Department attrition outpaces new hiring at an alarming rate. It takes two years for new police recruits to successfully navigate Civil Service exams and the Academy before they can be fielded. Many recruits who begin the process drop out. The training is rigorous and one must truly have “the right stuff” to be eligible to serve. There are currently 13 unfilled positions at IPD. The promise of higher salaries and signing bonuses for laterals has not meaningfully altered the city’s predicament.

“It’s significant that the County has been able to make 12 new hires this year, but despite the financial incentives we’re offering, we continue to struggle,” IPD Sergeant of Community Outreach, Mary Orsaio, tells me. “The uncertain future of the department has made potential recruits think twice about starting their career in Ithaca,” she says.

What’s even more concerning is the reality impacting our ambulance services. I have this statement from Bangs Ambulance’s Board of Directors. They say: “The Reimagining campaign, and the loss of Ithaca Police Department officers, has directly impacted our crews’ safety and our ability to provide prompt medical care.”

I grew up with Meghan Bangs, who serves on this board. We bussed to Caroline, Dewitt, and Ithaca High School together. Meghan represents the third generation of her family to provide lifesaving services to our community. I take it very seriously when she tells me “the golden rule of EMS is scene safety” and that her crews have repeatedly had to risk their lives because IPD were unable to show up on time.

Ask anyone who has ever required an ambulance: “Emergency” means every second counts. Ambulance crews have waited outside, or even within residences for over twenty minutes in the absence of a police escort, while dangerous scenes rapidly evolved.

Meghan offers the example of calls for overdose patients. Sadly, this occurs all too often in Ithaca. The weekend of August 12, 2022, alone, saw eleven overdoses as a tainted batch of drugs proliferated among needle users in our community. “Every one of those calls required a police escort,” Meghan says. Depending on how bad the overdose is, there is always a risk that the patient will become violent when medics administer the life-saving drug Narcan. That same weekend saw two assaults, one aggressive mental health patient with weapons, two stabbings, and a shooting.

“I want to stress that Bangs Ambulance has the utmost respect for all our brothers and sisters who serve as first responders,” Meghan says. “We are not placing any blame on the Ithaca Police Department Officers. They are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation, and we are extremely appreciative to have them.”

Meghan’s critique of our governance, however, is scathing. She says: “It is unfortunate that a majority of the City of Ithaca officials do not support the employees and departments who provide these lifesaving services, and even more unfortunate that they are willing to let it get to a point where it is endangering the safety of the city residents.”

Attribute what you will to the general staffing shortages reportedly impacting first responders nationwide, and what you will to our reform effort; the fact remains that our public safety apparatus is crumbling, and this reality cannot be ignored.

Attribute what you will to the general staffing shortages reportedly impacting first responders nationwide, and what you will to our reform effort; the fact remains that our public safety apparatus is crumbling, and this reality cannot be ignored.

Humane policing and prompt ambulance services are innately intertwined. It behooves a free press to report honest appraisals regarding the status of this essential, collaborative workforce, made by elected officials. Therefore, it is chilling to think that a member of County Administration could take issue with an article written about the opinions of the mayor of another municipality and then force the offending publication to alter its content. I’m horrified to learn that in the wake of recent FOIL requests, retaliatory actions have been made against the reporter that brought Mayor Hart’s statements to the fore, resulting in that writer’s suspension.

What does it mean for a county administrator to say a publication is “undermining our efforts”? And require changes to statements? Are “we, the people” not utterly violated when a publication accedes to such outrageous demands?

From a writer’s perspective, the very thought of a government official, or any outside entity, forcing the change of even one word against their will is a major affront to democracy.

If there is any belief that has always united Americans at hours of challenge and division, it is our absolute devotion to the protection of each individual’s right to free speech. Reimagining Public Safety, in its original inspiration, sought to highlight the voices of the entire community, especially those deemed marginalized. When ideology is blindly or systematically used to impose rhetoric regulating the free press, we have undermined our very ability to imagine anything at all.

I still believe we can achieve reforms that honor the many individuals who have spoken their truth these past two years, and the compassion and patience community members are bravely showing each other throughout this process. The question before us now is, how do we heal?

A video of Barken’s full speech is available here.


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Jeffrey F. Barken

Jeffrey F. Barken is the author of All the Lonely Boys in New York and This Year in Jerusalem, collaborating with Irish artist Diana Muller to illustrate his fiction. Barken is the founder and Chief Editor of Monologging.org. This colorful publication and small press connects writers with artists around the world, encouraging collaborative multimedia projects and providing regular arts-related reporting. Barken received his Bachelor's in English from Cornell University and his Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Publishing from the University of Baltimore. Now based in Ithaca, New York, Barken was recently elected to serve on the City Council as Alderperson for Ithaca's Third Ward.