Let students be involved in their neighborhoods

A local neighborhood association is considering student-friendly reforms.

Christopher Meyer

The Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association will soon vote on whether to amend its bylaws in order to make its elections more accessible to student residents. It is imperative that MHNA members support these reforms; the organization’s legitimacy as a representative body depends on it.

The two election reforms were proposed last month by MHNA’s newly resurrected Student Affairs Committee (for which I am currently the chair). The first reform would move MHNA’s annual elections from June — when most students are gone — to October. The second reform would reduce the organization’s eligibility requirement. Currently, before Marcy-Holmes residents can be eligible to run for the MHNA board, they need to have filled out an MHNA membership card at least 12 months prior to the election. The proposed reform would shorten this eligibility requirement from 12 months to six, thereby making it easier for students to get involved in the organization during the short period they live here.

Bylaw amendments must pass through two stages before they can go into effect. The first stage will come tomorrow, April 17, when the 16-member board will determine whether to forward the bylaw amendments to the organization as a whole. If they do so, MHNA will notify its members about the proposed amendments at least 30 days in advance, and members will then vote on them at the general membership meeting on June 19. All Marcy-Holmes residents will be eligible to vote at the general meeting if they have submitted a membership card at least 30 days prior to the election.

Students attempted to pass similar reforms in 2004, but MHNA rejected them. Relations between students and long-term residents have improved substantially in the intervening years. However, there is still a strong undercurrent of anti-student sentiment. While I am highly optimistic the reforms will pass, they will not go unopposed.

One board member expressed forceful opposition in a conversation with me over the phone. The argument he gave against moving the elections from June to October was that if people only reside here for nine months out of the year, then they don’t really live in the neighborhood and therefore have no place governing the neighborhood association.

This argument implicitly recognizes the consequence of holding elections in June: It precludes the large majority of students — who leave the University of Minnesota for the summer — from participating. If we extend the argument’s logic, then students don’t really live anywhere, for if nine months is not sufficient to establish oneself as a legitimate resident, then the three months they spend elsewhere is even less so.

Neighborhood associations should properly be understood as quasi-governmental institutions; they should not be treated as private clubs. They receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds from the city. They make enormously consequential decisions about new developments and policy changes that take place within their neighborhood’s borders. It needs to be a right , not a privilege for students to be able to participate in these institutions.

MHNA members frequently downplay their influence. For instance, Arvonne Fraser, the vice president of the organization and co-chair of its land use committee, told me in a September interview, “You think we have a lot more power than we do,” noting that “We have been overturned [by the Minneapolis City Council] time and again.”

But the fact that the neighborhood association may be overturned does not make it inconsequential any more than federal courts are inconsequential by virtue of the fact that they can be overturned by the Supreme Court. Elected city officials defer to neighborhood associations’ decisions the vast majority of the time, and even when they don’t, neighborhood associations still have enormous power to obstruct and delay developments they oppose.

Neighborhood residents do have some legitimate reasons for viewing students in a negative light. Just three days ago, MHNA reported to the police that vandals had damaged beyond a repair a “Community Garden” sign on Eighth Street and 10th Avenue Southeast. The sign cost at least $500 to erect and is now reportedly damaged beyond repair.

One board member responded in frustration: “I am sorry for our neighborhood that struggles to preserve a shred of what it means to feel safe, at peace, glad to live here. When confronted with this level of thoughtless, malicious, wanton destruction, it is a daily challenge not to allow the more negative emotions (anger, hatred, helplessness, revenge, despair, sadness) from poisoning our spirits. It’s ironic that we are trying to save and protect our neighborhood from ‘the leaders of tomorrow.’”

We do not yet know who committed these acts, but based on previous criminal patterns, it’s a safe bet they were drunk and a strong chance the vandals were students.

However, excluding students will not help solve these problems. The students who are going to be interested in participating in neighborhood associations are not likely to hold a grudge against community garden signs. On the contrary, students may be best equipped to figure out how to reduce these repulsive acts.

MHNA’s response to election reform will be a critical test of their legitimacy as a democratic institution. If they reject the reform, they will send an unmistakable signal that they deliberately intend to obstruct students — the majority of their constituency — from participating. In that event, students should press Minneapolis to strip them of funding and recognition as an official voice on behalf of the neighborhood.

If, however, they embrace reform, they will signal that they want to work with students as partners. The choice should be clear.

 

Chris Meyer welcoms comments at [email protected]