Ithaca is FENCES

Before March 2010 there were no fences on the bridges in Ithaca

Brief history of the fences:

Ithaca became a city in 1888. There were never fences on the bridges until late March 2010. In the last 20 years there have been 27 fatalities from people falling or jumping from a bridge.  Fifteen of those individuals were students at Cornell University.

After 3 students died by suicide from jumping from bridges Cornell University convinced Mayor Carolyn Peterson to permit it to erect fences in March 2010 by urging her to invoke her emergency powers as Mayor.  (The letter written to the Mayor is included in the June 2, Common Council Meeting Minutes - the link is at the bottom of this page.)

Cornell University argued that the bridges are iconic sites where people travel to commit suicide. At the same time Cornell University argued that suicide is an impulsive act that can be prevented by erecting barriers.  Eight foot high chain link fences with inward leaning wires at the top were erected on 5 Cornell University owned bridges and 3 city owned bridges at the end of March 2010.  These chain link fences were replaced by black metal fences in late August 2010.   The Mayor and City have agreed to let Cornell University leave their illegal fences on the bridges until at least May 31, 2011.

No matter how well intentioned the fences were illegally erected on ALL of the bridges and remain there without proper legal authority.

The fences were not legally erected on the bridges:

There is a site review and environmental review process under State and local laws that must be followed to change, modify or build.  These laws were not followed.  To avoid these laws the Mayor claims that she declared a state of emergency.

Process for declaring a state of emergency:

To declare a state of emergency the Mayor must issue a proclamation to that effect which describes the emergency and specifies what orders she is issuing to bring the emergency under control.  The written proclamation of a state of emergency must be published in the local newspaper and the text transmitted on television and radio.  This written proclamation does not exist and was never published.  Thus, no state of emergency was legally declared by the Mayor to permit her to issue emergency orders. 

The mayor did not issue a proclamation declaring a state of emergency, thus the publishing and transmission requirements were not met.

The emergency powers of the Mayor:

Under Article 2-B Executive Law Section 24 the Mayor may declare a state of emergency for 5 days and issue emergency orders to bring the emergency situation under control.  Any emergency orders automatically expire after 5 days unless extended for additional 5 day periods. A state of emergency may be declared "in the event of a disaster, rioting, catastrophe, or similar public emergency within the territorial limits of any county, city, town or village, or in the event of reasonable apprehension of immediate danger thereof, and upon a finding by the chief executive thereof that the public safety is imperiled thereby..."

The Mayor allegedly declared a state of emergency for 10 weeks.  There is no record an emergency order or of any 5 day extensions of the state of emergency. 

Process for suspending State and local laws:

The mayor does NOT have the sole authority to circumvent local laws, ordinances, or regulation or state laws under Executive Law Section 24.  (the text of this law is available in this section of the website under Executive Law Section 24).

While the state of emergency exists the mayor may suspend local laws, ordinances or regulations only if

           1.     the chief executive of the county determines that the disaster is beyond the capacity of local government to meet adequately                       and asks the governor for state assistance
           2.     the governor has declared that there is a state disaster

The county executive did not ask the governor for assistance in dealing with the alleged state of emergency in Ithaca.

The governor did not declare a state disaster.

The Mayor DID NOT HAVE the authority to permit the suicide fences to be erected:

There is no question that the mayor did not conform to the emergency powers conferred on her under Article 2-B Executive Law Section 24.  As such, she exceeded her emergency power authority by allowing Cornell University to erect ANY fences.  In permitting the fences to be erected the Mayor  abused her power to circumvent Ithaca's site planning review process and other permitting procedures in addition to environmental review as required under State and City Law. 

Common Council cannot ratify illegal acts by the Mayor:

The Common Council did NOT vote on whether to erect fences on the bridges.  They voted to extend the emergency measures instituted illegally by the mayor. Common Council votes extending the “temporary emergency” fences were made during the summer when most students were not in Ithaca.  On June 2, 2010 the Common Council voted to extend the illegal fencing for 10 weeks.  On July 14, a public forum was held when most students and stakeholders were not in Ithaca. On August 4, 2010 the Common Council voted to extend the illegal fencing until May 31, 2011. On their own Common Council has no emergency powers.  A legislature can not pass a law to ratify an illegal act by the mayor.   Each Common Council member took an oath to uphold the laws not to subvert them.

There was no state of emergency:

To declare a state of emergency there must be an emergency. When the Mayor claims to have declared a state of emergency there was clearly no emergency that would permit avoiding, circumventing and undermining established law.  The last suicide happen in early March 2010.  In fact, when the fences were erected in late March it had been 2 weeks after any reported suicide occurred. There was no longer anything close to a state of emergency.  And now, the fences are still on the bridges but it is quite clear that there is no state of emergency with the last suicide occurring more than 7 months ago. 

The truth is that the suicide rate in Ithaca is statistically very low.  The current excuse for the fences used by the Common Council is that there is a "risk of a possible suicide contagion". We say that there is a risk that a lot of things are possible but that is no justification for the Mayor and Common Council to undermine the rule of law, abuse their powers to suspend laws that are inconvenient to them, breach their.oath of office, and violate the State Constitution.

The fences are not temporary:

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the fences are NOT temporary.  At best they are semi-permanent.  The suicide fences are supposed to remain on the bridges at least until May 2011.  That is 15 months.

To put this abuse of power in perspective, the power  that the Mayor invoked would permit her for 15 months to declare a curfew, curtail traffic, close places of amusement and assembly, suspend the sale of alcohol, and to prohibit people from being present on public streets and places.  Keep in mind that her power to actually suspend state and local laws is subject to stricter standards and limits.  What this means is that the mayor and the Common Council believe that they have the power to do all of those things in addition to the most extreme action of circumventing or ignoring established laws and the rule of law.

There is no question that if there is a true disaster the Mayor should be able to act quickly DURING the emergency to protect the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of Ithaca.  That is why the law gives these extraordinary powers.  But the law is also clear that any action taken under these powers is specifically limited in duration and scope.

The Mayor DID NOT have the authority or the emergency power to suspend State and local laws to permit the suicide fences to be erected.  The Common Council DOES NOT have legal authority to ratify an illegal act of the Mayor that circumvents State and local laws.