January 2016 Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting

My first post on the new 2nd ward website! I’ll be chairing the first 2016 meeting of the Council’s Planning and Economic Development committee this Wednesday, January 13th at 6pm in Council Chambers. It’s a whopper of an agenda. Here’s a quick run down of the meeting:

Voting to send on to February Council meeting (Wednesday, February 3rd at 6pm in Council Chambers):

  • Changes to Commons Ordinance – we’re making some non-substantive tweaks to the Commons rules that we passed last year. See agenda for more info. Shouldn’t be controversial.
  • Changes to Exterior Property Maintenance Ordinance – The Exterior Property Maintenance Ordinance (or “EPMO” in City Hall parlance) requires that city properties meet certain standards: no overgrown lawns, no discarded trash in the front yard, no snow-impeded sidewalks, no bags of garbage left on porches, etc. The ordinance has produced a lot of frustration. The exorbitant fines and delayed notification periods have proven to be a major hassle for city residents and property owners. We’re proposing to reduce the fines and improve the notification system. These changes are long overdue. In fact, four years ago, when I was a reporter at the Ithaca Times, I wrote an article on this very issue. Among other things, it’s an interesting case of a future Council member quoting a future Mayor!
  • Discontinuation of Lake Ave and Adams Street – we’re discontinuing a public street. INHS is going to maintain it as a public thoroughfare as part of their 210 Hancock project. Requires Council action.
  • Changes to Taxicab Ordinance – another one that’s been in the works for a while. Our current rate structure for taxicab fares is complicated and confusing. This legislation would establish a standard fare within city limits and also provide set fares for destinations outside city limits, like the hospital and the airport. See the agenda for more info.
  • Changes to Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP) – our ongoing attempt to reform the city’s tax abatement policy. Here’s a good overview.

Voting to “circulate” (basically this means that we send a proposal out to the public for feedback; the proposal will come back to the committee next month for further consideration):

  • Temporary Mandatory Planned Unit Development for the Waterfront – kind of a mouthful. Basically this would create a special “planned unit development” zone that would give Common Council more oversight on any potential development that happens on the Waterfront. The Waterfront is a critical area, and we want to make sure that future development fits with our comprehensive plan. See the agenda for more info.
  • Proposal to Reduce Cell Tower Fall Zone – the city has received a request to reduce our cell tower fall zone to make room for a development on South Hill. Currently, the fall zone is twice the height of the tower. It appears this might be higher than is standard practice in other cities. The question is whether we want to reduce it. See the agenda for more info.

Again, here’s a link to the agenda. You can watch a live stream of the meeting here. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact me at jmurtagh@cityofithaca.org. Thanks!
– Seph


Common Council January 2016 tl;dr Overview

I had my first council meeting on Wednesday and the relatively light agenda was a nice introduction to the duties of this governing body. Highlights of the meeting include (agenda here):

  • Many council members (including myself) expressed support for the basic premise of encouraging or requiring ground-level active use on the Commons, but were concerned about some of the language. A revised proposal will be sent back to the Planning & Economic Development Committee
  • We renewed an agreement between the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Ithaca Police Department to jointly staff and cooperate on the SWAT team
  • We approved $4.6 million of bonds for capital improvements (street construction/repair, more parking pay stations, Cass Park Ice Rink, and many other items; see the agenda)
  • I will be serving on the TCAT board

The main event, though, was the mayor’s State of the City address. The Ithaca Voice has already done a great job of summarizing his speech.

– Duc

P.S. Why do I keep signing my name on posts when WordPress clearly shows a byline? Seph and I share this page and for his sake I want to make it abundantly clear at the beginning and end when it’s me posting. Just in case I write something dumb.


A few days ago I was sworn in to office as your new 2nd ward alderperson (i.e., representative on Common Council). I’m taking the seat that J.R. Clairborne occupied for 10 years.

Duc and JR

His devotion to serving the most vulnerable segments of our community is something I admire greatly, and while I can’t hope to fill his shoes, I aim to honor his service by continuing his fight for affordable housing and community benefit in all city affairs.

A huge part of that mission is improving communication between city government and residents. There are many approaches we can take on this and I want to try as many of them as possible, online and off. But to start I’ll be active on social media, where many discussions about the direction of the city are already taking place. I’ve also created this website, where I hope to make issues easier to digest and track. It shouldn’t be hard for anyone interested in an issue to find out when the next opportunity to speak publicly is, or to get up to speed on the process that lead up to a decision.

This is a work in progress. As I write this only CIITAP is listed in the Issues section. I’ve found that digging into the past of these topics is more time-consuming than I anticipated. More will be added as issues come before Council and as constituents ask me for more information on a subject. I will need your help to identify information that’s incomplete or out of date.

I’ve indulged in extracting data about the ward from the Tompkins County Board of Elections and US Census Bureau. I find it fun and interesting, but more importantly I think it’s vital to understand exactly who it is we’re representing. This is also time-consuming, however, and I’ll be adding new statistics at a trickle.

Finally, at the lowest priority is improving the aesthetic of the website. I’m a programmer, but not a web guy at all. Maybe someone who is skilled in such things can help out.

I’m looking forward to Seph Murtagh contributing to the site. As evidenced by his monthly newsletter (which we will now cross-post here) he’s a better writer than I am. He’s also an exemplary public servant and I hope to learn much from him in the coming years.


January 2016 Common Council Meeting

Common Council’s January meeting will be on the 6th at 6pm in Common Council Chambers on City Hall’s 3rd floor. On the agenda are:

  • Zoning change to require active use (retail, restaurants, etc.) at ground level on the Commons
  • Issuing $4.6 million of bonds for capital improvements (street construction/repair, more parking pay stations, Cass Park Ice Rink, and many other items)
  • Mayor Svante Myrick’s State of the City address

The full agenda can be found here. You can view a live video stream of the meeting here.

This will be my first Council meeting. Get informed, come make a public comment, or just say hello!


Making maps from Tompkins County GIS data

I did not, thankfully, have to create the map on the ward page manually. Tompkins County Geographic Information Services provides publicly accessible data you can load into Google Maps to provide views tailored to your needs.

What were our needs? The city website provides a serviceable ward map, but as a PDF it’s not interactive and provides limited granularity (i.e., you can’t zoom into streets and properties). It also doesn’t clearly mark the city’s wards, and I wanted something that made that more explicit. Our ward map takes advantage of Google Map’s flexibility and familiarity to (hopefully) provide an easy-to-read and easy-to-use visualization of the city’s election districts.

You can do something similar with the other data that the Tompkins County GIS page provides. Here I’ll walk you through how to take shapefile data from public sources and import it into Google Maps to display it.

Getting the Data

You of course start with the information you’re trying to map. For this example, I went to the GIS Data page and clicked on Tompkins County GIS Datasets at CUGIR to get to the Cornell University Geospatial Information Repository. That particular link takes you to popular datasets, including what I’m interested in: Election Districts, Tompkins County, 2013. Whatever you happen to be interested in, download the associated zip file.

Converting the Data

The shapefile format is used by GIS software that most of us don’t have access to, the skills to use, or a reason to care about. All I really know is that Google Earth and Google Maps take KML files and that I need a way to turn those shapefiles into KML.

There are various standalone programs and plugins to professional software that do this, but the easiest way I found was to use this online converter by Mapsdata.

converter screenshot
From the converter at mapsdata.co.uk

Drag the zip file you just downloaded into the box on the website or click the button to bring up a file browser to find the zip file. Either way, you’re given a KML file to download.

Importing into Google Maps

Go to Google My Maps to create a new custom map.

Google My Maps screenshot
My Maps splash screen

Click Import to upload the KML file you just downloaded.

Click Import to upload your KML file
The Import link will bring up a dialog to upload your KML file

Wait a little while and see your map appear!

Import complete: basic outlines displayed
Import complete: basic outlines displayed

By default Google Maps just outlines the geometric boundaries of whatever regions are contained in the data. But also in that KML file is metadata associated with each region. In this case, information about each election district. You can use that metadata to color the map in a more useful way.

Click on the paint roller or the “Individual styles” text next to it. In the pop-up menu that appears, click on the box below “Group places by” to display visualization options. Here I want to group by ward.

Options under "Group places by"
Options under “Group places by”

When you’ve chosen a field to group by, Google Maps will assign a color to each. You can easily change these to meet your needs.

Much easier to look at
Much easier to look at

Pretty easy, right? There are other options for coloring the map and displaying labels. Play with it until you’re satisfied with the way your map looks. Then hit that Share button to embed your map in a website or distribute a link.

I hope this helps! Together we can better visualize the available city and county data to keep residents informed.