More Students Choose to Take an Active Role in City Government

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City Government and Student Relations in College Towns

Members of city government and students on commissions discuss relations between city government and students in college towns.

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In 2006, fifth year UC Berkeley student Jason Overman felt the voice of students wasn't being represented on the Berkeley City Council and decided to run against incumbent Gordon Wozniak. Overman ended up losing the election, but he carved a path for greater student involvement to take place.

"A lot of times, there's discrimination by those involved in the political process, they don't see that (students) are qualified or have (their) voices heard," said Overman, who currently holds an elected position on the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.

In Berkeley and some other college towns, there is a stigma against college students holding higher positions in city government. But in recent years, Berkeley has seen the level of student participation in city government rise, helping to foster a community for students and non-students.

The link between students and city government must exist to solve shared problems like housing and safety, said Jesse Arreguin, chair of the Rent Stabilization Board and Housing Advisory Commissions, who graduated in May.

"Students play an important role because not only are they the members of the campus community but members of the city community-and how we bridge that gap is important," he said.

According to the city clerk, 17 of the 283 active city commissioners are students. But not all are UC Berkeley students, and some students may not have appropriately marked their application.

The extensive number of commissions allows students to affect policy.

"Commissions are sort of the entry level position of city government," said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who says half of his commission appointees are students. "If you don't get experience on a commission, on one ground you don't know how bureaucracy works. On the other ground, people in the bureaucracy don't know who you are."

The ASUC Office of External Affairs this year has made greater efforts to recruit students, said Danny Montes, vice president of the office.

Serving on commissions allows students to apply their interests or areas of study, providing mutual benefits for both the commissions and the students.

Natalie Nava, a junior conservation and resource studies major, and Worthington's appointee to the city's Zero Waste Commission, says she has applied her academic studies to the real world at commission meetings, including helping draft the city's plastic bag ban and researching multi-family recycling in Berkeley.

But Nava says it is sometimes difficult to reach a compromise because some non-student members of the commission are more moderate than her peers at school. But, she said, serving on the commission has allowed her to see how the city and campus are run differently.

"I've learned for how long it takes for things to happen. Sustainability work at (UC) Berkeley gets things done a lot faster than commissions do," Nava said. "I feel like even within the Zero Waste Commission, there's huge diversity in terms of priorities and backgrounds."

Other cities that coexist with a large population of college students say they too make efforts to develop interaction between students and city officials.

Like Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Mich. is an urban, liberal college town that hosts a major research university.

But few University of Michigan, Ann Arbor students hold positions on the city's commissions and are often more interested in padding their resume than affecting city policy, said Kyle Goszyk, the former external relations chair for the school's student government.

"The city government here doesn't really promote sitting in commissions through the City Council," he said. "That hasn't come up when I've been involved, and I doubt it ever was and will in the near future."

Whereas in Berkeley two City Council districts contain the majority of the student population, in Ann Arbor students are distributed centrally throughout the city, said Ann Arbor Councilmember Joan Lowenstein.

Ann Arbor does have a student relations committee that allows student delegates to meet with council members. The local Democratic party, which has a number of party members on the City Council, also works with the Democratic party on campus to promote student-city relations.

But another city, 75 miles south of Berkeley, has found a different way to involve students in city government-Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty, 34, is also a professor of legal studies at UC Santa Cruz.

Coonerty said both he and Michael Rotkin, another Santa Cruz City Council member who is a professor on campus, hear feedback on policies from their students.

"Certainly when we make decisions, I hear about it from my students all the time," said Coonerty, a legal studies professor. "I discuss city issues in class and get student input."

Through increased student-city relations in Berkeley, students are able to provide a wealth of information that can lead to greater involvement in city government.

"My dream is that students will have their fair share of elected and appointed positions throughout the whole city," Worthington said. "I think we've made a lot of progress in that direction, but I think we can make more."


Jane Shin covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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