The Ann Arbor City Council may not be deaf to student voices after all. Last Monday, the council unanimously approved a resolution creating a committee to improve communication between students and the city government. The committee has the potential to help students by bringing their interests before a Council that often considers actions hostile to students. Yet student representation on a yet nonvoting advisory committee is a poor substitute for democracy. Ultimately, Ann Arbor’s unfairly gerrymandered wards – which currently split the student vote – need to be redrawn to include a student-majority ward covering areas where students live.
Nearly one out of three Ann Arbor residents is a student at the University. Despite that, City Council frequently considers motions that harm student interests. The Council often debates actions that affect students – such as parking restrictions and a proposed couch ban – during summer months when many students are out of town. And city government is often slow to act on students’ behalf. Though Mayor John Hieftje said last spring he hoped to enact an ordinance by this fall to delay lease-signing dates, the housing rush – as usual – started shortly after students bought their textbooks for fall term.
Lack of communication between students and their city government is one reason why the Council often seems hostile to students. The committee, which will include five students appointed by the Michigan Student Assembly, as well as two Council members appointed by the mayor, should help both Council members and students stay aware of events in the city. Though it is not clear exactly how effectively the committee will promote student interests – Councilman Leigh Greden (D-Ward 2), who will hold a seat on the committee, strongly supported a plan two summers ago to ban upholstered furniture from porches that incensed many students – it will doubtless be an improvement over the current situation.
A more important reason why City Council seems so unresponsive, however, is because it is not held accountable to students in elections. Currently, the city charter mandates that the five wards for City Council form roughly pie-shaped segments that meet at the center of the city, “so as to make each ward a very rough cross-section of the community population from the center outward.” Because Central Campus just happens to lie in the geographic center of the city, the charter dilutes the student vote among all five wards. South Quadrangle Residence Hall and West Quad, for instance, are in different wards despite being across the street from one another.
This gerrymandering makes it extremely difficult to elect students to City Council. The last time an undergraduate student was elected to the Council was during the Nixon administration. More recently, LSA senior Eugene Kang narrowly lost the Democratic primary in the Second Ward primary this August – when many students who likely would have voted for him were out of town.
Redrawing the ward boundaries to include a student-majority ward around areas populated by students would make it easier to elect a student – or someone similarly responsive to student concerns – to City Council. It would also be a far more democratic way to run Ann Arbor. Current Council members have little incentive to pay attention to students who live in their wards because nonstudents dominate all the current wards.
Students will not be able to fix the gerrymandered wards anytime soon. The wards are adjusted every 10 years after the U.S. Census. Yet during the last debate over ward boundaries in 2001, students did not make the division of their votes an issue. For now, students can work with City Council through the newly established committee to make their voices heard. But students also need to be aware of their disenfranchisement through Ann Arbor’s gerrymandered wards. There is no excuse for Ann Arbor’s anti-democratic ward system to remain intact after another census – and there is no reason for students to remain silent about it.