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A Student Seat on the Borough Council

Students make up a majority of the borough’s population, but lack any representation on borough council, with no direct input on subjects like trash collection and bond financing. This situation is the result of the rational behavior of each and every student, who for whatever reason does not devote 15 minutes to voting.

Since it appears that a zeitgeist of parochial apathy is the prevailing disposition, the students are left to submit to the preferences of voters who do vote in municipal elections, with the upshot being a board composed exclusively of Democrats and non-students. Enter stage left UPUA president Christian Ragland, who wants to use extra-democratic means for a solution to a problem students could rectify themselves.

Students had the opportunity to vote in an election of their own in 2009, but squandered the opportunity due to low turnout. Brett Fisher, who is now an MBA candidate in Smeal College of Business, received about 800 votes, compared to the lowest winner, who received nearly twice as many. This compares markedly to 2008, when thousands of students turned out to vote in the HUB, presumably for the current president. As Fisher succinctly describes: “If students don’t turn out to vote, then students won’t be represented on council, and student rights will continue to be trampled.”

It seems that Ragland wants to create a non-voting member of council, which would probably violate the Home Rule Charter, a document that describes the organization of the borough government. Since students couldn’t be bothered to be represented through conventional, democratic processes, the leaders seek alternative accommodations, perverting the system, creating an unjust and undemocratic situation. Given that the current electioral regime is unsympathetic to indifference, it would probably be more fruitful to change the rules of the game, to make them comport with the preferences of the majority.

Currently, council members are elected “at-large,” meaning that the top three or four candidates in a general election within the entire borough are the winners. I propose that the borough be divided into six wards, or geographical districts, with one at-large member. For example, campus could be made a single ward, and only residents of a respective ward can be elected or voted for from there. Thus, only one student would have to run, with 10 voters in the ward voting for him or her, thus guaranteeing a student on council.  The downtown area could be made into another ward, and so on. Amendment of the home rule charter would require a plebiscite, and to guarantee student turnout, should be held during the next general presidential election.

It is admirable that traditional walls of  town and gown differences are being transcended by the new student government. However, for long term sustainability, the rules of the game must be changed while ensuring that the elections remain free and fair. This is combined with the fact that students probably are uninterested in the humdrum of municipal administration, but are entitled to a proportional voice and equitable representation within the precepts of our democratic society.

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