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21-only and student voice

BY SIMEON TALLEY | NOVEMBER 08, 2010 7:20 AM

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There's a palpable sense of disappointment, and many students are feeling downright aggrieved after last week's election. Despite heavy student turnout, 21-only still stands.

At the earliest, 21-only can be put to a vote again (for the third time) in two years. By then much is likely to have changed. The UI's freshly minted alumni will likely return to find favorite bars closed.

And students are expected to have adjusted. But in the here and now, students should seriously consider concerning themselves more with the workings of local government and politics — including their lack of representation on the City Council.

The 21-only vote was primarily portrayed to the public as a vote over health and safety (with economic development concerns percolating to the forefront periodically).

The pro-repeal side argued the ordinance pushes underage and binge drinking into the shadows, making it more dangerous. The anti-repeal crowd argued that excessive drinking has gotten completely out of control, tarnishing Iowa City's reputation and that the ordinance would do something about it. The majority of voters sided with supporters of the ordinance.

Neither side discussed, however, that this election was also a proxy for an ongoing debate that takes place in every community about power. Students have long lamented their lack of representation and influence in City Council. That chorus grows louder whenever the drinking and bar entry age or PAULA enforcement is discussed.

In response, students have unsuccessfully run for the City Council. There is even a student liaison. But the structure of the council and the manner in which we elect its members inherently dilutes student influence and representation.

Iowa City has a hybrid at-large system consisting of seven members.

Four members represent the city at-large, and the remaining three come from districts. At-large members are nominated and voted upon by the entire city. District members are nominated by eligible electors within their respective districts and voted upon in the general election by all Iowa City voters.

This at-large scheme of government came to be in the early 20th century, the period historians label the Progressive Era. It was an attempt to wrest away power at the local level from political machines and business elites. Corruption was rampant, and reformers sought to institute good government.

The rich and powerful could outright buy political office or help elect officials who would assent to their interests. Local reform efforts also reflected high-mindedness toward governance — local government should be free of partisanship, parochial interests, or the narrow-minded.

However laudable the intent of the at-large system, the practical effect has been diminished minority-group representation. Cities such as Iowa City are diverse and dynamic; our 80,000-plus population has a myriad of political interests. Without a representative on council that is nominated and elected from a lone district, minority voices get lost.

The system is un-democratic for some, and it's confusing. First-time candidates often spend an inordinate amount of time explaining how to vote instead of discussing relevant issues. The way we elect our council proves to be beneficial for some and not for others.

Research has shown that the interests of the low-income, racial, and ethnic minorities — and, yes, students — often are pushed to the side in favor of the more consistently organized and wealthy. The at-large system doesn't produce a qualitatively better government.

Students aren't even a minority as a share of the total Iowa City population. But they are disorganized, sporadically vote and, for the most part, are uninterested in mundane local government.

If you're enraged about the result of the 21-only vote, you should be apoplectic that the effect of the Iowa City charter precludes strong and consistent student representation on the City Council.


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