John Becic

This Nov. 4 will be one the most important elections Ann Arbor
has seen in recent memory.

What’s the big deal in this off-year election? The big deal is
whether to approve a $30 million proposal to create what Mayor John
Hieftje calls the “Greenbelt,” a ring of greenspace around the
city, where Ann Arborites would be free of modern housing, car
exhaust and strip malls and thus put a stop to suburban sprawl.

If the ballot proposal is approved by voters, it means (and this
bothers a lot of conservatives) taxpayer dollars will pay for a
government program whose explicit purpose is to counter economic
development.

“The quality of life in Ann Arbor is declining because of all
the construction that’s going on our borders leading to sprawl and
traffic congestion,” says Councilman Robert Johnson (D-Ward 1).
“It’ll just make life in Ann Arbor better if we have open space,
farms, fields, rather than just a continuous ring of houses around
the city.”

It’s a noble idea and should be approved, and that’s why this
election is important.

But there’s another issue here, and that’s the process by which
we elect our council members and the fact that students are not
very involved in it.

For years and years it has been the policy of the Ann Arbor City
Council to draw wards – the council districts – in such a way that
marginalizes the student vote. Instead of creating one or two wards
that are near-majority student, the council has dispersed the
student vote across several wards, making it almost impossible for
students to get elected to the council, though not for a lack of
effort. In this city of which students comprise approximately one
third of the population, not one sits on the council.

Regardless, three students are making a go of it this year. If
history is any indication, their chances are not good.

It just so happens that the ballot proposal to raise money for
the Greenbelt should be a close one, says Johnson. Unlike, say, a
school or a parks-and-rec millage, this one is for a new type of
program and voters may be leery of it.

Moreover, “We expect a pretty powerful and well-funded campaign
from the opponents,” Johnson says. In other words, pro-Greenbelters
need as many quasi-environmentalist, pro-tax-raising students as
possible to offset the votes of conservative property owners who
don’t want their taxes raised.

So if the pro-Greenbelters lose, don’t be surprised if some of
them blame disinterested students for their loss. The truth,
however, is that if the council really wanted students involved in
city government and policy setting, it would have made it easier
for them to get elected, and thus feel like they have more at stake
in city governance. Was it not the 18th-century British Tories who
made the argument that, even if American colonials did not elect
members of Parliament, they were still represented because all
British officials had their interests at heart?

Well, a lot of students won’t be here more than four or five
years. Feeling locked out of the process, is it unreasonable for
them to conclude that city interests should not be their
concern?

The only interesting council race to watch this year will be in
the 2nd Ward, where Councilman Michael Reid seeks a second term.
The first-term Republican is being challenged by Democrat Amy
Seetoo. Fact is, the 2nd Ward – the most heavily Republican ward of
all – is majority Democrat, and is becoming, like the rest of Ann
Arbor, more and more Democratic. Yet it manages to produce
Republican council members in odd-year elections. A loss for Reid
this year would reduce the ranks of the Republican caucus down to
one member. If Reid loses, look for a move to make Ann Arbor’s
municipal elections – like those of most Michigan cities nowadays –
nonpartisan.

Meizlish can be reached at meizlish@umich.edu.

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