Now that tobacco use is nearly as unhip as one-party machine politics, smoke-filled back rooms are a thing of American political history. Back room consultations over coffee, however, are still alive and well, if the “Coffee with the Mayor & Chief” meetings going on in Ithaca are any indication.
The difference between these meetings with Chief John Barber and Mayor Svante Myrick and the typical back room summit is that no one is summoned to attend. Anyone can come into the public space of the coffee shop, sit down, and have a chat with the leaders of their city and police department.
Two more of these sessions are scheduled this spring for the mornings of May 20 and 27 at the Gimme! Coffee on West State Street. Four have been held this spring, three at local Dunkin’ Donuts.
Citizens attending these sessions might want to have a question or two prepared, since the meetings are not an entirely open affair. There is a sign-up system in place with a place to put one’s questions, so the mayor and chief can have one-on-one conversations with their constituents.
Though taking people in by ones or twos doesn’t quite capture the free-ranging marketplace aesthetic of Athenian democracy to which some idealists might aspire, the measure of privacy does allow people to speak a bit more freely about their issues.
For example, on the morning of May 13 a mother speaking with Barber and Myrick wondered how the city could provide more programs for teenagers. She wasn’t excusing some “punk ass shit” her youngster pulled that brought down trouble, but had looked around for mentorship programs to keep older youth, high school-aged, out of trouble and found little. Barber suggested some places she might go, and then Myrick answered her second question – “What are the city’s quality of life goals?”
“Security,” he said first, “so that people can walk down the street without fear.”
The second, Myrick said, was economic security/affordable housing – “I think we’re better than most cities on the first one, and we’re struggling with the second.”
Helen Kuveke, a West Ender, said that she was concerned with people she sees struggling to walk down the street on their own, under the influence of heroin or other substances.
“I can look out my kitchen window and buy any drug I want,” Kuveke said. Treatment and enforcement are the city’s two avenues of action, she was told, – there are no easy answers to an epidemic that’s gripped rural America for the past 20-plus years.
On the topic of affordable housing, Sean Gannon suggested the city look into guaranteeing loans for housing sales, so “Grandma can get the money from a home, and the grandson can get a house he can afford.” The University of Pennsylvania operates a program in Philadelphia that works to get employees into homes in the city they can afford, Gannon told Barber and Myrick.
Arron Bound, a South Sider, came in to pay the IPD a compliment. He’d seen a street fight broken up by officers a few years ago, in a peaceful manner, and said that in his native Cleveland “they would’ve been thrown to the ground and everybody would have been arrested.”
Bound did have a question for the chief: Why does the department buy so many SUVs, compared to sedans? Isn’t gas mileage an issue?
“Really, the mileage is comparable (with sedan cruisers),” Barber said. “They allow us to carry equipment, put a full cage in it, and they’ve got four-wheel-drive which is really helpful.”
The long, morning lines at Gimme! had both the mayor and chief wondering whether that was just the line for java or if they had far more folks waiting to talk. On this morning, over two hours, they had about 15 conversations. Some heavy issues were raised, and some were more of a hello and a chat. Betsy Herrington came by to say hello and give a hug to Myrick, and met Barber for the first time.
“About 1 out of 10 are coming to see me,” Barber said. “Well, no, for the record, let’s say two out of three.”