The council voted 4-3 in March to create a nonvoting student liaison position, to be filled annually by a student selected by UI Student Government (UISG). The liaison will advocate for the student body at the council’s biweekly work sessions and formal meetings.
Tapped to do that this year are Jeremy Schreiber, a senior finance major from Libertyville, Ill., and Austin Baeth, a junior pre-med major from Des Moines, Iowa, who began their one-year terms as the council’s first-ever student liaison and alternate, respectively, on May 1. As members of the UISG executive committee, Schreiber and Baeth will set their personal opinions aside and represent official positions taken by UISG. Some of the issues they would like to address include improved street lighting, increased late-night bus service, and tenant-landlord relations. The effects of zoning changes in student-populated neighborhoods also are a concern.
“We want to prove to the council that we are a viable voice, and we want to bring the councilors to the students,” Schreiber says. “If you think about how often the council makes a decision that affects students’ lives, you realize how important it is for students to be involved.”
Other goals, Schreiber adds, include recruiting students to serve on various city boards and commissions and, perhaps most important, getting students registered to vote in Iowa City. He and Baeth will work with UISG this fall to organize voter registration booths and candidate forums to engage students in municipal politics. Three of the seven seats on the council will be up for election in November.
Iowa City mayor Ernie Lehman agrees that having a student perspective will be beneficial. In the past, students tended to address their concerns when the council was set to vote on an item—too late, he says. The presence of the student liaison and alternate will help ensure that the student voice is heard much earlier in the discussion.
“Student involvement is certainly less than that of the average citizen and I absolutely understand that—they see themselves as temporary residents of Iowa City. But they are a constant force. Although the faces change, that segment of the population is always here,” Lehman says. “It’s nice to get reaction from students. We need their input, and we’ll take that input as seriously as that from anyone else.”
Though this is the first time UI students have been officiallyrepresented at council meetings, Lehman says council members always are open to student comments—during regularly scheduled public discussion at council meetings or via phone or e-mail.
Baeth, a former UISG senator, admits he was surprised to find how accessible and accommodating the council members are.
“Their home phone numbers are published on the city’s web site and they encourage people to call them. It’s not uncommon for a councilor to directly quote one of their constituents at a meeting,” he says. “They’re good at listening, and they respect our opinions. I think putting an actual face to the student body may help our reputation.”
Perhaps the hottest community debate involving students in recent years has been about a proposed city ordinance requiring bar patrons to be 21 or older—a proposal that UISG opposes. Currently, 19- and 20-year-olds are allowed to enter bars.
The proposal received significant media coverage and prompted numerous editorials and letters to the editor from students and community members on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, city action on the ordinance was tabled until at least January.
“It was during the discussion of the 21-only ordinance when we realized that we needed someone at the city council meetings to advocate for our interests all the time,” Baeth explains.
That’s true, says Jason Shore, a senior from Wilmette, Ill., and former UISG vice president. But he stresses that one of the main arguments for creating the liaison position was to open a permanent dialogue between students and city government—on a variety of issues.
“There are multiple collaborative projects that the students and the council can work on in a more consistent and organized fashion. The cleanliness of downtown alleys and sidewalks, for example, was one area of student concern last spring,” says Shore, who lobbied council members individually last year to create the position. “There have been several instances in the past where ideological clashes between the students and the city occurred. These confrontations can be avoided with constant communication and teamwork.”
The liaison position is a first for Iowa City but not in the nation: Iowa State University in Ames has an ex-officio student representative on the Ames City Council, and several other universities, including the University of Maryland in College Park and Texas State University in San Marcos, also have nonvoting students serving on local city councils.
Both Schreiber and Baeth have been active in UISG and other political campaigns. In fact, Baeth applied for the liaison position after his then-girlfriend won his UISG seat.
“I enjoy politics and the atmosphere of debate,” says Schreiber, who plans on attending law school. “It’s great to be able to sit at the table with people with high status in the community. I’ve learned a lot about how the council works, from a procedural standpoint, and everyone has been fantastic. Even though it was a 4-3 vote, you really can’t tell which councilors voted for or against creating the student liaison position.”
Working together toward common goals, Shore says, is in the best interest of the entire community.
“This is a great way to make this city better for everyone,” he says.
by Sara Epstein Moninger