November 6, 2007

City Council Reps Balance Academic, Public Obligations

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With Thanksgiving break just around the corner, it’s Big Red crunch time. Research papers, prelims and presentations loom, all the desks in Olin are taken, and students long for the sweet taste of homemade cranberry sauce.
Now imagine trying to do all that work in between classes, Common Council meetings and other Council-related engagements and correspondence.
Serving on the Council is a significant commitment, and hours can range anywhere from five to 50 hours depending on the week according to Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward).
“It was pretty difficult to juggle school work and being on the Council,” said David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th Ward). “Some professors were enthusiastic about it, but some felt that classes should be the number one priority if you’re going to enroll. I often have lunch engagements or dinner engagements and the first of the month meetings often run into the early hours of the morning — which often means staying up all morning to finish a problem set.”
According to Mary Tom­lan ’71 (D-3rd Ward), the commitments of members outside of the Council range. Some are full-time students, some have full-time jobs, and some have more flexible schedules. Attending regular meetings and taking an active role can be difficult for all representatives, especially when trying to keep up with schoolwork.
However, Gelinas noted, it is possible to be a full-time student and have a position on council.
“It was not completely unmanageable and should not dissuade anyone from running,” he said.
Younger than other representatives, students said that at times they have felt the need to prove their dedication. The level of commitment shown by students on Council has helped improve the relationship between student and non-student members.
“My peers on council are accepting of me, but at times I have felt as though they look upon me differently because of my age. But, because of my consistency and tenacious work ethic, they see that I am just as much a valued member as they are,” said Townsend.
In addition to the time commitment, an issue that all students who run for Council must confront is the length of the term. Terms are four-years long and require that students remain in Ithaca after graduation or step down.
Gelinas suggested that a two-year term for undergraduates and a four-year term for graduate students and permanent residents might serve the community better. After graduating in May, he remained in Ithaca to work on projects he had started. He has announced that he will resign at the end of the year.
“I certainly had no intention of resigning when I ran for office. I ran as a resident of Collegetown; however it is increasingly difficult to represent the student population now that I graduated and my actual peer base is no longer in Collegetown. I have done my best to represent permanent residents and students,” said Gelinas.
Furthermore, undergraduates are the best representatives of undergraduates, he said.
“It’s easy for an undergraduate to represent graduate students and permanent residents, but it is easier for a current undergraduate to represent undergraduates,” he said.
According to Tomlan, an issue with stepping down early is that it takes time to learn how to navigate city hall.
“I think the city loses by having council members who are only on for two years because it does take time to get used to the processes and issues in the city. It is important to have the knowledge and experience in order to be able to really move forward,” she said.
Townsend notes he was able to be most effective in the latter part of his term.
“It was not until the second two years that I really began to take the experience of the first two years and get a lot done. I was more savvy, more experienced knew my way around city hall better. I could do things I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to get done before,” he said.
Despite long hours, students contend it’s worth it to serve the community.
“It’s hard to turn down to do a service to your neighbors and community,” explained Svante Myrick ’09, who is running for a seat.