By Marla Sowards
One of Provo”s most heavily student populated areas became part of the city”s new fifth City Council district, added by a 4-3 vote at the Feb. 4 City Council meeting.
The new “central district,” covering an area roughly from just west of I-15 to 900 East and from 600 North to 600 South, includes downtown Provo and part of the area south of campus.
Proponents said the central district will represent an area with needs different from anywhere else in Provo.
“It has a mix of business, residents and student housing,” said Councilman Dave Knecht. “You don”t have that in the other parts of the city.”
In the old arrangement, four council districts each contained pieces of the central area. Knecht said this arrangement did not provide adequate representation for central Provo residents.
“You have to have someone who preferably lives there, and understands the impact of living in that type of mix,” Knecht said. “The downtown is really the toughest part of town to deal with. People there felt underrepresented and some, even patronized.”
Many BYU students live in the new district.
“The greater portion of the population is BYU students in the central district — even greater than the residents,” said Ted Dowling, executive director of the City Council.
Dowling said this high concentration of students in the district has some voting implications.
“If the BYU students all got together and voted, they”d control the central district,” Dowling said.
Knecht said he didn”t see this scenario as a possibility.
“Some people have alluded that this would create an opportunity for a student to win in the central district,” Knecht said. “But I don”t think, personally, that a student has necessarily an advantage there over any other place.”
Janeal Rogers is a former BYU student who, as a legislative assistant for BYUSA, lobbied the City Council a year and a half ago with student concerns.
“It would be a far shot for a BYU student to get elected, unfortunately,” Rogers said.
Rogers attributes this to BYU students” small voter turnout, a result of their failure to register to vote.
“If students register to vote in the state of Utah, they renege their residency in their home state,” Rogers said. “If they want to go back to school in their home state, they have just said they”re a Utah resident. People are not going to renege their residency.”
Dowling said lack of interest is another factor.
“It”s hard to get them interested,” Dowling said. “Usually, (a typical BYU student) is a senior in political science before he gets interested.”
However, Rogers said, with a mobilization of the BYU student vote, a BYU student could win a council seat.
“If we could just get 10,000 of the (BYU students who are) Utah residents to vote, we could own the City Council,” Rogers said. “(Provo) only had 7,000 people vote last time.”
Knecht, whose five-district proposal the City Council adopted, said the distribution of BYU students across Provo had no effect on the drawing of the lines between districts.
“We didn”t have any record of how many students lived in any particular area,” Knecht said. “That wasn”t a factor that we could even deal with.”
Figures returned from the 2002 census dictated a need to adjust the districts to distribute Provo”s population evenly.
However, Dowling said, there was no need to add a new district.
“We had to make some change, but we didn”t have to make five districts,” Dowling said. “We could have had it pretty much the same with just a little bit of realignment.”
Dowling said the added district throws off the carefully checked balance of the previous arrangement, in which four City Council members represented four districts and three represented Provo at large.
“They knew that if there was any particular council interest in a specific quadrant of the city that was in one person”s district, the other three council districts could not gang up and not allow that district to get something that it shouldn”t have,” Dowling said. “The three citywide (council members) couldn”t help that council district out, by giving them a majority.”
Dowling said the balance is also thrown off for voters, as one citywide seat was lost with the creation of the fifth district seat.
“It used to be, before we made this change, that every citizen of Provo would be able to vote for a majority of the council,” Dowling said. “Now they won”t. All they can vote for is the three: the two citywides and the one in their district.”
However, the loss of a citywide seat makes for easier campaigning, Dowling said.
“One of the citywide (council members) was very happy to give up the citywide (seat) if it would make a fifth district,” Dowling said. “It is very expensive for the citywide council members to campaign. Most council members would rather have a specific district that they”re responsible for.”
Dowling said the idea for a fifth council district was prompted by the city”s plans to close Maeser Elementary, located in the newly defined central district, and build a new elementary school in another part of the city. Central area residents who did not want Maeser to close thought their concerns went unheard by the City Council.
“They didn”t even have one school board representative they could talk to,” Dowling said. “They started looking at the school board, and then started looking at the council, too. Then they talked enough council members into deciding to do it (add a central district.)”
Dowling said this also led to the idea of City Council district lines following those of the school board districts.
“I think that is a benefit to the city,” Dowling said. “It will help with better coordination and better input from citizens because they”ll both be talking to the same people in each given area. I think that”s a plus.”