Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"PULLMAN: Candidates say communication key to town-gown issues"

From yesterday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Challenger: Students need to be more involved in city politics

Al Sorensen and Nathan Weller have conflicting views regarding the current relationship between the city of Pullman and Washington State University.

A Pullman City Council hopeful, Weller said city officials lack unity with the university - a unity that would make Pullman a better place to live.

"WSU and Pullman are one community," he said. "If we're to be one community, we need to communicate."

Weller is vying for the Ward 2 council seat against incumbent Al Sorensen. Also on this year's ballot are Mayor Glenn Johnson, Ward 1 Councilman Benjamin Francis and at-large Councilman Keith Bloom. Each are running unopposed for re-election.

Devon Felsted - who was running unopposed to replace Councilman David Stiller - will appear on the ballot but has removed himself from the election due to conflict of interest issues.

Weller said he's talked to "95 percent of Ward 2" and the consensus is that students should be more involved in city activities, from beautification to drafting ordinances. Two scheduled meetings between the council and the Associated Students of WSU each year does not provide enough opportunity for students to voice their concerns and suggestions about how the city is run.

"Two meetings a year, to me, seems pretty light," he said.

Sorensen said Weller has it all wrong.

"I outright disagree with Nathan stating that there is a lack of communication with students, WSU and the city of Pullman. It's not just those two meetings. We do a lot of communicating behind the scenes," he said.

"We have an open door to students all the time. I talk with the kids," Sorensen added. "They know if they have a concern they can call the city or myself. We're accessible."

Johnson agreed, noting the council and ASWSU are working together "better than ever."

"We're on the same page ... I think there's a lot more harmony than we've ever had before," he said.

Weller said communication issues also spill into the areas of water conservation and city beautification. The areas between campus and downtown need to be cleaned up, too, and if the city and university worked together, it could be done. WSU also has smart water conservation practices Weller said should be shared with the city.

Weller, a recent WSU graduate, said recent actions by the City Council are "driving a wedge" between city government and the nearly 18,000 students. A series of ordinances passed during the last several months have ostracized the student population, he said. These ordinances include one which makes it unlawful to have or consume an alcoholic beverage in a public place, and a proposed code, which would allow police officers to issue civil infractions to people who engage in fights, be it mutual combat or not.

"Students feel targeted," Weller said. "I think the ordinances are a step backward. These ordinances, I feel, are just making the students upset."

Sorensen understands how some students may think the ordinances are aimed at them, but is quick to point out that they are meant to diminish behaviors that threaten the community's quality of life, not punish students for having fun.

"We want to make Pullman safe for everyone," he said.

Johnson said the city recognizes many of the problems pertaining to open containers and rowdy behavior are caused by visitors and WSU alumni, who come to Pullman for football games and other events.

"They remember the day in the '70s and '80s when they could do whatever they want," he said.

Sorensen said a majority of ordinance violations are "more prevalent" on College Hill, but it's only a testament to the hill's dense population of Pullman residents.

"If it happens to be directed at the students, it's because there just happens to be 18,000 students who live here," he said.

Weller doesn't disagree that fights and "moving parties" are an issue, but he said communication "neighbor to neighbor" is a better way to solve the problem than involving police or city codes.

"It's important that as WSU changes and Pullman changes, they work together," he said.

Sorensen argues that as adults, students should be able to party responsibly.

"I'm not against alcohol and having a good time, but I'm for responsibility. If you wouldn't do it in your front lawn, why the hell would you do it in my front lawn? Be responsible. Be a good citizen. Be a good neighbor," Sorensen said.

Bloom agreed, adding that the ordinances aren't intended to curb anyone's fun.

"You can still drink and you can still party," Bloom said. "You just can't carry your drink outside and fight."

Weller said a proposed ordinance that would require all rental-property owners to apply for a business license isn't a smart move. The license process would require rental properties to periodically be inspected for code violations and conditions that could make the dwelling uninhabitable.

Weller said there aren't enough houses in disrepair in Pullman to warrant such an ordinance, especially since he believes the cost of inspections likely will be passed on to renters.

"I think a blanket ordinance is the wrong way to go," he said.

Sorensen said the proposed ordinance is intended to protect the health and safety of residents renting property.

"There's a catastrophe waiting to happen out there," he said.

Most students are new renters, who "don't fully understand all of their rights and responsibilities," Weller said. Instead of being heavy handed with the rental property owners - who he said for the most part run clean businesses - the city should educate students on their rights as tenants and how they can report a violation or properties in disrepair.

"We won't have to go out and legislate everything, we can communicate and educate," he said.

The communication problem could be repaired "relatively easy," Weller said if a student representative - either elected or volunteer - could be present at all Pullman City Council meetings.

"Being a college town, they would like to be a part of Pullman itself," he said.

Sorensen said Weller needs to do his research. Students were once encouraged to sit on the City Council - but the four-year position was such a time commitment that it was eventually taken over by a full-time resident. Sorensen said he does support students playing an active role in city government.

"I would welcome them to sit on the boards and commissions. That's great," he said. "If anyone is interested in helping and they want to help, we've got a place for them."

Sorensen said he is pleased with student involvement around the city. Volunteers from campus involvement groups, Greek houses and student organizations help with fundraisers and city beautification projects.

Sorensen said he tries not to identify people as student or nonstudent.

"I don't like categorizing the citizens of Pullman that way," he said, noting students, generally in town for nine months out of the year are included in the city's Census figures. "Just because they don't have classes in the summer doesn't mean they don't live here. I don't see it as an us verses them situation. I don't ever want it to come to that."

No comments: