A fight has broken out in Kingston pitting downtown students against suburban councillors over a stake in city decisions.
At issue is a decision made this week by Kingston City Council not to take postsecondary students into account in its latest redrawing of electoral boundaries. Instead, council decided to merge three of the city’s downtown electoral districts near the Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College campuses into two, which student groups say means they and other downtown dwellers will now be represented by only three councillors instead of four. Council has 13 members, including the mayor.
Postsecondary students are accusing city council of “discounting” their vote and treating them as second-class citizens, and councillors are accusing one another of gerrymandering.
“It’s the idea that citizens don’t view us as community members. They just view us as people they have to stand for four years until we’re gone,” said Taylor Mann, communications officer for the Queen’s Alma Mater Society. “A lot of students are feeling really hurt by the city, saying ‘they’re not taking us into account.’ ”
Students will often move several times and do not always register to vote with updated addresses, and Kingston has not traditionally gone out of its way to try to locate them when drawing up electoral boundaries. But late last year, council asked city staff to find out where students are so that the electoral realignment, ahead of the 2014 municipal election, could better represent the actual population. The option staff recommended Tuesday took into account the additional student population they found (which would have left downtown as four distinct districts), but was voted down 7-6 by city council. Instead, council opted to draw up the boundaries using the old methodology, which relies upon students to register themselves, meaning many students will remain unaccounted for.
“The reason we need councillors is that, at the end of the day, you need that hard vote,” Mr. Mann said. “You need power to represent students to affect things like zoning bylaws, campus housing, and other things the city has purview over.”
He pointed to the downtown district of Williamsville, which the city’s new map shows as having just over 10,000 voters. “But in reality, that number is discounting student voters, so it actually has around 15,000 voters in it,” he said.
Liz Schell, a councillor for the Portsmouth downtown district who voted to include students, said the arguments against counting them varied. “A big one was ‘students don’t vote,’” she said. “They don’t vote, so why include them in the numbers?”
Bryan Paterson, whose suburban district is just north of Ms. Schell’s, voted not to include students, and said his decision wasn’t about excluding students, but about giving more representation to the rapidly growing suburbs – namely, the northwest, which gained the district that downtown lost.
“I think it’s wrong to think of the students as having only three or four representatives,” Mr. Paterson said. “I think we’ve moved to a level where we want students to feel comfortable in every part of the city, and not just think that there’s one area where a councillor will represent those students.”
Bill Glover, a downtown councillor whose district he said will be “eviscerated” as a result of the new boundaries, called the vote “a gerrymander.” He said the decision was made by right-wing councillors to secure an additional vote for their own interests at the expense of those living downtown.
“Normally, the downtown core votes progressive and the suburbs vote conservatively,” he said. “Therefore, to ensure a conservative majority, you’ve got to reduce the number of downtown constituents,” he said.
Brian Reitzel, a councillor whose district covers a giant swath of the east end, was also not in favour of including the students, called the new boundaries “the fairest method” of dividing the city. “Students have always had the right to sign up to vote,” he wrote in a statement. “We have not and will not exclude any demographic in this city whether they vote or not.”
Queen’s students, in the meantime, are deciding on their next course of action. Taking the issue to the Ontario Municipal Board may be a possible next step, but Mr. Mann said the AMS hopes to gather enough support to possibly overturn the motion when it goes to third reading later this month – something that rarely ever happens.
“Every September, we say to students, ‘Welcome to your new home for the next four years,’ ” said Troy Sherman, the Queen’s AMS municipal affairs commissioner. “City Council decided to say, ‘You’re not Kingstonians; you’re transients.’ ”