Some of this year’s biggest political issues have not been the big, drawn-out battles that take place in Lansing or Washington, D.C. Important issues like housing, jobs and taxes are debated right here in Ann Arbor by our local government, a government that has little input from one of Ann Arbor’s most influential groups: students at the University of Michigan.
While it may not be evident to most students, Ann Arbor’s City Council has been locked in a fierce election over for the past few months. The Aug. 8 Democratic Primary election saw heated mudslinging between anti-development candidate David Silkworth and current incumbent Chip Smith. Blogs such as “Local in Ann Arbor” and papers such as Ann Arbor Observer hurled posts about each candidate’s politics for months. Even after the primary ended, independent candidates including Ali Ramlawi — owner of the Jerusalem Garden restaurant — declared candidacy over dissatisfaction with the results of the primary election.
While it may be easy to brush these things off as simply village politics that don’t matter to students, City Council’s responsibilities actually include some of the most salient and visible policy items in the Ann Arbor community. Hot-button issues like the deer cull and the ongoing debate over the Library Lot high-rise will likely be brought into focus in the next council cycle. These issues may not seem like monumental policy actions to many students, but issues that do matter to students — including rising housing costs and city-University cooperation fall on the hands of the council, which seldom has enough student input to fairly represent the needs of young people. We don’t realize it, but frequently, Ann Arbor has more control over our everyday lives outside of the classroom than the University does.
Simply looking at Ann Arbor's gerrymandered ward map will point the viewer to the obvious conclusion that Central Campus, and the heavily student-populated neighborhoods surrounding it, have been sliced up in a way that no one ward contains the voices of students, and that the concerns of students can be placed on the back burner of all 10 council members. A student living in the West Quad Residence Hall would have a different council member than a student who lived across the street at the South Quad Residence Hall. These two students would be represented differently than someone who lived on Tappan Avenue, mere steps away. All of this is in spite of the fact that Ann Arbor's population according to the census — which determines federal funding and congressional representation — includes students at their campus addresses.
This creates a dynamic where student members of the Ann Arbor community won’t feel represented by their own government. The intentional disempowerment of student residents is also echoed by the fact that City Council elections are decided in August, during the partisan primary — a time when many students are away for vacations, internships or summer jobs — leaving the election in the hands of a few committed local residents. In fact, until this year, City Council races were held in non-congressional off-years, leading to even lower turnout and even less public participation.
While the city of Ann Arbor recently established its Student Advisory Council, the roster for the committee currently only lists councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3 with the contact information for getting involved being listed as “TBD.” The stunning lack of representation of the more than 40,000 students who attend the University of Michigan, with 10,000 students confirmed to be living in Ann Arbor is unacceptable for a city that prides itself on being an epicenter of progressive public policy. If every Ann Arbor-based canvasser with an anti-gerrymandering or pro-voting rights petition approached local politics with the same furor that they approach Republican-led gerrymandering or voter suppression in the state House, then Ann Arbor’s City Council would have seen a dramatic restructuring years ago.
I urge students to stay aware of local political issues, and to contact their City Council member about issues of importance, and to always vote in local elections, even if that requires an absentee ballot. I also urge the city of Ann Arbor to focus on equal representation of all its residents. Reforms including redrawing wards to include a student-focused member of council, or including at-large or ex officio student members of council will go a long way to ensuring that all voices are heard in the political process.
Many of us students may only be four-year Ann Arbor residents, but the student population of Ann Arbor will continue to exist for as long as there is a University of Michigan. If our current political state of affairs has taught us anything, it is that participation in government at all levels is crucial to the advancement and success of democracy. Staying involved in Ann Arbor is no different.
Kevin Sweitzer is an Editorial Board member.