January 23, 2004

Cornell Students Take a Seat on Common Council

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While most Cornell students greeted the new year with parties and promises of self-improvement, Michael Taylor ’05 and Gayraud Townsend ’05 celebrated by pledging to serve the City of Ithaca.

On Jan. 1, following the swearing-in of Ithaca’s first female mayor, Carolyn Peterson, Taylor and Townsend took an oath of office to serve on the Ithaca Common Council. They were joined by eight other city council members.

According to Taylor, the proceedings were simple. The city clerk read an oath and the council members affirmed it with the words “I do.” All of the members received an official badge of the City of Ithaca, representing their positions on the council and their commitment to the city.

“It was just a really good feeling inside,” Townsend said of being a part of the ceremony. “I’m having a really fun time so far.”

Townsend and Taylor have made history with their joint commitment to represent Cornell students in local government — this is the first time that two students have held seats on the council. Townsend’s position spans a four-year term while Taylor’s lasts two years.

Both students serve the fourth ward of Ithaca, which includes most of Collegetown and part of West Campus. The area’s residents consist almost entirely of Cornell students — 97 percent, according to Taylor — although there are also permanent residents and parts of the University in the district.

Townsend and Taylor recognize that students, permanent residents and University administrators often have conflicting needs and expectations for fair legislation.

“It’s going to be hard,” Townsend said of bringing the three different groups together. “I’m very optimistic about it. Mike and I will get to the issues that we feel are most important.”

One of these issues involves rental housing in Collegetown. “The rates of Collegetown housing have really skyrocketed,” Taylor said. He hopes to improve the experience for students renting off-campus by providing some guidance in signing contracts and working with landlords. “Students … often are subject to exploitation and aren’t aware of their rights,” Taylor said. Additionally, Townsend addressed the need for attention to retail development and the beautification of Collegetown.

The issue Taylor currently wants to address and improve during his term in office is a piece of legislation attempting to change the city’s noise ordinance. According to Taylor, the previous council worked on a proposal that, if passed, would represent an “irresponsible piece of policy.” Taylor explained that under the proposal, an aggravated noise offense, one step up from a regular noise offense, could have unnecessarily harsh consequences for students. The maximum punishment for a first offense is a $1,000 fine and/or prison for fifteen days, or 200 hours of community service. The minimum fine is $250 or 50 hours of community service. After a second offense, the penalties become even more severe.

Although he said the intentions of the legislation may have been innocent — to keep the streets quiet enough for residents — Taylor believes that this policy could hurt unsuspecting students. He hopes to make more effective changes to the proposal when the new council addresses it, so the city can control the noise level for residents and target repeat offenders while respecting the rights and needs of students.

Townsend also wants to improve the relationship between students and the Ithaca police. He hopes to make both groups more aware of what is expected of them and wants to help brief students on standard procedures for interacting with the police.

City Attorney Marty Luster, also a visiting professor at Cornell and a former New York State Assembly member, said, “I think the mayor is thrilled that they’re on.” He added, “I think they both will bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the council. I look forward to working with them.”

The Cornell community also appears excited to have student representation in Ithaca’s government.

“Without having someone from the student perspective on the council, the democratic caucus would be missing a key perspective,” Taylor said.

“We are very privileged to have an area of our city that is dedicated to college life,” Townsend added.

And, with the addition of two students, Ithaca has a city council that is beginning to look more like the community it represents.

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz