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Finding a Voice
How to build a city-student relationship
By Eric Swalwell, University of Maryland

March Madness 2001: Thousands of students “riot” on the University of Maryland campus as its beloved Terrapins lose in the Final Four to perennial rivals, the Duke Blue Devils. As the students took to the streets, nearly a million dollars worth of damage was incurred by the city as cars were turned over and cable lines destroyed.

The response from the College Park non-student community was outrage. The City Council held a hearing on ways to improve the city’s response in the future. The city and university worked autonomously in efforts to solve the problem. In essence, fingers were only pointed at each other.

With the previous Final Four as an undertow, there was a need for the city and the university to work on improving their relationship with one another.

As a member of the Student Government Association (Chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs), I sought out to broker this relationship. My idea called for a Student-Councilman. The student would attend every council meeting (they meet once a week), and would be allowed to speak on all agenda items, introduce resolutions, and be privy to all city materials (through a courier service provided by the city).

I began my lobbying effort in Nov. 2001, capitalizing on a Council election year in College Park. With incumbents seeking election, and a powerful student vote, they were willing to listen to my concerns.

After the election I immediately began to lobby every councilman elected. Using a simple method of inviting each councilman out to lunch, I soon began to pitch my idea. I immediately began to grasp the will of the council. There were about a third entirely in favor of the idea, a third who needed more convincing, and a third who probably would not vote for it. I decided to especially continue targeting all of those who needed more convincing, and one of the three who would probably not support it. It should be noted that the council consists of 8 councilmen and a mayor who can break a tie, if necessary.

After a crucial dinner with the Mayor, I was finally gaining the momentum I needed. He would assist me in brokering a deal with the vulnerable councilman opposed to the idea, and the three who needed more convincing. After four months of lobbying, he agreed to place the topic as a work-session agenda item. Work-sessions are the council’s opportunity to hammer out resolutions before they come to a formal vote.

The work-session produced the compromise I was hoping for. I was willing to concede the students vote and a chair at the formal session dais. In return, a firm majority agreed to grant the position full speaking privileges, the right to introduce resolutions, a seat at the work-session dais, and access to all city records via courier. I also secured the vote of a potential naysayer by agreeing to have the student serve one full year, including the summer and over university holidays. This, we agreed, would ensure dedication and that a student would not have “a nine month agenda in a twelve month year.”

On April 9, after months of hammering out dozens of agreements and compromises, the Council voted 7-1 to approve the position of Student-Liaison to the College Park City Council. They also voted to name me as interim Liaison until the student was found. The resolution called upon the Student Government Association to select the Student-Liaison through a search of the entire undergraduate student body. The search committee comprised SGA leadership, the Mayor, and a member from the Council.

After reviewing a number of applications, I was named the first Student-Liaison to the city of College Park. My term began May 1 and will end April 30, 2003.

My first meeting as Student-Liaison was with the Mayor of College Park and the President of UM and his top-level administration officials. Everyone in the meeting agreed to work closer in attempts to solve problems like riots, noise problems, and sharing resources.

This past June, I was invited by the Mayor to attend the Maryland Municipal League’s annual conference in Ocean City, Maryland. Without a room to stay in because of cutbacks in the SGA budget, a councilman offered to put me up. His gesture was symbolic of the changes that already were beginning to occur between the two factions. A group that once had trouble coinciding peacefully together was now sharing a room in Ocean City, Maryland, for a conference, where we both testified to the Town-Gown panel on our new partnership.

Eric Swalwell, a senior Government & Politics major at the University of Maryland, currently serves as the Student-Liaison to the City of College Park, MD. He also is the Vice President of Campus Affairs for the Student Government Association, and is an elected member of the Student-Faculty-Staff University Senate, and it’s Executive Committee. Contact Swalwell at swalwell@wam.umd.edu.

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Copyright © 2005 Oxendine Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved

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