Student pushes for UVM ward amid redistricting process

Katy Cardin

For the past three years, Burlington has been attempting to redraw its city lines in what has been characterized by committee members, residents and local media as a long and arduous process of redistricting.


As population growth over the past decade mandated a shakeup of the cityÕs current voting districts, the idea of creating an eighth ward comprised of the UniversityÕs campus was unofficially proposed last year.


Now, one of UVMÕs own students is attempting to bring this issue to the forefront again. Charlie Kelley, a senior, is advocating the idea that an eighth ward be added to the cityÕs existing seven to provide for an on-campus student voting district.


ÒWhen you think about students who would be interested in working with the city council you’re getting people who are studying government or economics and know how to deal with issues, and their focus is particularly probably government, he said. We have this town with all these intellectual people at UVM but they’re not really put to the task of doing anything. I think students will have a fresh perspective and make sure the laws that are being passed are fair.


Kelley, who said he first became interested in city politics during his freshman year, pointed to the recent success of other colleges on this issue.


Over at UC Berkeley they just started their own student voting district within the city of Berkeley, so that got me interested in seeing if we could use that model here,Ó he said.


Although Kelley works with the city council members in helping to come up with a new redistricting plan, not all representatives agree with his stance, including the person who he would likely need support from the most for a redistricting initiative like this one: SGA President Connor Daley.


Students come to Burlington for college for four years and then they leave and go elsewhere, Daley said. I am a firm believer that there should be no representation without taxation. It’s difficult to see how students would be invested when they’re so transient. That might sound derogatory toward students, but it’s a fact.


To get the movement going, Kelley said there needs to be a lot of backing from city council representatives, and more importantly support from UVM students and organizations hurdles that have so far been difficult to overcome.


ÒGetting students motivated behind a cause can be difficult to do,Ó he said, adding that he already has worked with some people familiar with city politics to advocate for this such as Ward 4 redistricting committee member Jim Holway. ÒStudents, on the other hand, are going to be more of me raising my voice and getting them to care about anything. The more people I can get behind this cause the better.Ó


Kelley said he admits to there being other challenges he will have to face besides trying to increase student involvement.


Ò[One of the] main challenges IÕve heard from people is how do you draw the lines?Ó he said. ÒThatÕs one issue the committee is hung up on. When you redistrict anywhere, lines have to be moved and lines have to be redrawn. The committee has to come to a consensus on where they draw the lines. Action has to happen very soon, so the sooner we can figure out where to draw the physical lines and present that plan the better.Ó


Why Redistrict?


The redistricting process began shortly after the 2010 Census was taken, when BurlingtonÕs population growth showed that an electoral map needed to be redrawn to provide for equal representation across the cityÕs seven wards.


TodayÕs city redistricting process addresses two changes that took place between 2000 and 2010: the growing enrollment of UVM students (the overall student population grew by more than 3,000 people, according to the Office of Institutional Research), and the relatively slow growth of BurlingtonÕs New North End that includes Wards 4 and 7.


The result: Wards 4 and 7 were found to be overrepresented, while Ward 1 (which includes the area of UVM’s campus and streets neighboring Fletcher Allen) was not representative enough. The redistricting committee, which is comprised of a city council representative, a Neighborhood Planning Association representative and/or an alternate from each ward, was charged with the task of ensuring that no single ward could deviate more than 10 percent from the ideal population per ward of 6,060.


After much deliberation, the process culminated last June in three different proposals: a 4-ward, 12-councilor plan; a 6-ward, 13-councilor plan and an 8-ward, 16-councilor plan, though several other variations have been discussed in the past year as well.


Ward 4 political activist Lea Terhune, who serves on that wardÕs NPA steering committee, first vocally proposed the plan that Kelley is now advocating for.


ÒAt almost every city council meeting issues are discussed that involve students,Ó Terhune said in July. ÒTo me, the ideal thing given their large population was to make the on-campus students their own voting district. 42,000 [BurlingtonÕs approximate total population] divided by 8 is 5,000, and there are 5,300 students on campus. I thought it was perfect.Ó


ÒThey are going to have to fight for it.Ó


But many people didnÕt agree including, seemingly, students themselves. Terhune said no members of the UVM community bothered to show up at open forums last spring, SGA wouldnÕt get behind the initiative and many city councilors and committee members were Òdead setÓ against it.


ÒPeople said it would be Ôa messÕ if students served on the city council,Ó Terhune said this summer. ÒIt was shocking.Ó


Criticism of a university-voting district was apparent earlier this summer, when several residents weighed in at a May 29 redistricting committee meeting. Former Ward 4 councilor Kurt Wright said, Òwe love colleges. They bring a lot to the city, but they are not an active, engaged voting people whose homes are here. We also know the University of Vermont population is going to decrease. President Sullivan has made that clear.Ó


Ward 6 NPA representative Michael Rooney went even further, calling a student-voting district Òa disasterÓ and claimed that students would not have a Òvested interestÓ in candidates they would elect.

To Mannie Lionni, an alternate NPA representative for Ward 7, the public perception of college students was an example of what he calls Òold time prejudice.Ó


ÒThey see students as second-class citizens and I think itÕs a dreadful mistake for a city that prides itself on diversity,Ó Lionni said. In response to the argument that students are a transient population that only remains in Burlington for four years he added, ÒIÕm 80. IÕm just as ÔtransientÕ as they are. They go away in the summer; I go away in the winter like many people here who can afford it. And no one criticizes them.Ó


Despite the fact that student interest in this issue appears minimal (EditorÕs Note: the Cynic did not cover this issue last spring when approached by Terhune due to time constraints), Terhune said she was confident that a student-dominated Ward 8 could work.


ÒIn a population of well-educated, bright young people the problem would not be finding someone to run,Ó she said, explaining that students would, in theory, have as much knowledge of city politics and issues as any councilor. ÒIf they want to be a voting district they are going to have to fight for it. And people like me will be on their side.Ó


WhatÕs Next?


In the meantime, Kelley said he will be making the case for a university dominated Ward 8 by getting the word out to BurlingtonÕs student population through his blog, social media platforms, working with student clubs and knocking on doors.


Technically, he has months until this ward proposal could be put on the ballot during the annual Town Meeting Day that takes place March 5. If this plan passesÑwhich, Kelley notes, is a long way off from happeningÑ it would not be implemented before March 2015 because the state legislature would need to ratify it.


In the short term, the city council is expected to vote on redistricting at its Sept. 23 meeting.


ÒIf [students] realized what benefits could come with having representation in the city, I think people would be a little more interested in helping out any way they could,Ó Kelley said.