Meet Gayraud Townsend ’05 and Michael Taylor ’05, two Cornell juniors who take the term “town-gown” to the next level. On Jan. 1, Townsend and Taylor took an oath of office to serve the city of Ithaca on the Common Council, marking the first time that two Cornell students were sworn in to serve concurrent terms for the city’s government. Elected to represent the fourth ward, which includes Collegetown and most of West Campus, the two join eight other city-elected officials on the council.
Both Washington, D.C. natives, Taylor and Townsend and grew up near each other, going to high school within minutes of one another, but did not actually meet until their freshman year at Cornell. They became close friends and each found ways to become actively involved in campus life.
After joining Sigma Pi Fraternity, Taylor was elected to serve as the Interfraternity Council’s (IFC) vice president of University and community relations. Regular meetings with the Collegetown Neighborhood Council and his subsequent service on the Fourth Ward Democratic Council led Taylor to consider vying for a council seat last spring. Taylor currently serves on the Governance Committee and the Community Service Committee.
“The Governance Committee has oversight of the City Attorney’s office and is where new ordinances and local laws as well as revisions to the city charter happen,” he explained. “The Community Services Committee is the committee that exists to address the needs of the community in terms of what city services they need and how they need them.”
Townsend’s political activity began on campus, most notably last year, when he founded Students for Students, a campus party, largely accredited with attracting the high voter turn-out last spring. While the party was quite effective in generating student activity, Townsend failed to land the vacant student-elected trustee position on the Board of Trustees.
Despite his disappointment, Townsend ran for and was elected student president of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). He is also a member of the Student Assembly Finance Commission and the president of the Minority ILR Student Organization (MILRSO). However, it was Taylor who pushed Townsend to consider running for Common Council, and finally, during the mid-summer, Townsend committed himself to pursuing the four-year term. One of the youngest African-American elected officials in history, Townsend serves on the City Administration Committee and the Planning Committee.
Since being inaugurated, the two say that the biggest adjustment they’ve had to make is simply being busier.
“You have to be organized,” said Townsend. “No more sleeping in until 12. You’ve got to do your email thing. You’ve got to be responsive. You need to set an example for others.”
Electronic organizers, daily planners and finely-tuned methods of communication help them divvy their days.
As Common Council members and students, they also have the unique — and often daunting — task of being icons for both the student body and the city of Ithaca. Aware and proud that they are city representatives, both claim that they approach college decision-making with much more care.
“I thought that my social life would suffer [as a result of being on Common Council],” said Townsend. “These days, I just watch myself more.”
During their first few weeks as alderpeople, Taylor and Townsend have been challenged with the task of representing both student and residential interests, specifically by addressing current and proposed noise ordinance policies. Because residential complaints regarding reckless party habits have been so passionate, and because the proposed ordinance has been charged with unfairly targeting students as culprits, Townsend and Taylor have heeded and responded to vehement opinions on either side of the issue.
“You can’t satisfy everyone,” Townsend said. “So you just need to be consistent.”
In addition to resolving the noise debate, Taylor and Townsend have many more goals for their terms. Both would like to see major improvements Collegetown’s aesthetic, its infrastructure, and in the businesses and services available.
According to Townsend, one of the most fascinating parts of his job is applying the ILR curriculum to city-related work.
“I study Human Resources every day at school, but [in serving on the council] I listen to actual collective bargaining every day,” he said.
Taylor is impressed with Ithaca’s unique culture of community involvement.
“Ithaca has a history of good citizen participation and activism,” he said. “From what I have seen of other city governments, this is very unique.”
While they enjoy serving the city and admire their colleagues on the Common Council, Taylor and Townsend are grateful for each other’s company.
“Having Mike on the committee is so much of a relief,” Townsend said.
“If I didn’t have Gayraud on the committee with me it wouldn’t be nearly as fun,” Taylor added.
Regardless of their official city badges, their coveted parking spots in the Commons, and the marriages that they can (and have) officiated, Taylor and Townsend are still students. Taylor continues to be active in his fraternity, on IFC and with the S.A., while Townsend maintains his commitments to the S.A., ILR and MILRSO.
Commenting on the relative impact of the new position on his life, Townsend joked, “I am in a great place, but I am still dateless.”
Archived article by Ellen Miller