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Where are the adults in redistricting debate?

In the debate between Georgetown University students and representatives of the Burleith and West Georgetown neighborhoods over redrawing the ANC 2E's single member districts, it's clear that the students are acting like adults and the "adults" are acting like children.


The first rule of good citizenship is realizing that you have to play by the rules---that special exceptions don't exist for you. That's doubly true when you hold a public office, whether that office is president, senator, or neighborhood advisory commissioner. Well designed rules work to ensure fairness, but even poorly designed rules are better than having no rules at all. Yet ANC Chairman Ron Lewis and the other proponents of the so-called co-chairs' proposal for remaking the single-member districts (SMDs) are convinced that the rules don't apply to them. That's true both metaphorically, in the sense that they fundamentally don't believe in fair play for all residents of this community, but also literally, in that they have flagrantly disregarded the clear letter and intent of the relevant statutes. The stakes are clear. Will Georgetown students be gerrymandered out of their fair share of representation? Or will the community build an institution that can work to resolve our problems instead of making them worse? Lewis, Burleith Citizens Association leader Lenore Rubino and Citizens Association of Georgetown president Jennifer Altemus have chosen the latter. Their plan would restrict Georgetown students to only two seats on an eight-member commission. They have achieved this result by drawing district boundaries that are wildly malapportioned. The proposed University districts have 2,500 residents each within their borders, while other districts throughout the ANC have only 1,700--or even fewer. The co-chairs proposed this arrangement despite the clear rule that districts must contain 2,000 residents, plus or minus 200, and that there cannot be a disparity of more than 10 percent between the largest and the smallest districts within an ANC. Lewis has justified this outcome on two bases. First, he claims, the statute allows for the districts to be drawn to represent neighborhood cohesiveness and the integrity of community life. Consequently, he argues, Burleith should be treated as one unit, and the campus as another one. Second, Lewis believes that it is fundamentally unjust for non-students to be represented by students, and for students to be represented by non-students. Neither of these arguments is sufficient reason for breaking the statute. And neither of them is even internally consistent. The statue does allow for neighborhood cohesion to be taken into account. But that is not an excuse for breaking the law's clear numerical targets. And such cohesion is often somewhat illusory. Why do students living on 37th Street have less to do with their compatriots living along O Street? What strong connection do the residents of Hillandale have with the apartment-dwellers adjacent to the Corcoran? Nor does Lewis' claim about representation hold water. I am both a Burleith resident and a graduate student. In many ways, I share the concerns of members of the Burleith Citizens Association about noise, about trash violations, and about parties that get out of hand. But I also have an interest in maintaining frequent and convenient transit by GUTS bus between the campus and Dupont Circle and in knowing that 19-year-olds' careers won't be tarnished by an MPD noise violation. Most of all, I want to know that the ANC will treat me and my fellow students, both graduate and undergraduate, with respect. Were I to reach out to my commissioner, would he dismiss my complaint out of hand because I'm not a property owner? The attitude that Lewis and many other proponents of the plan have displayed suggests that is exactly what would happen. At each stage of the process, the co-chairs have sought to clothe a fundamentally unjust plan in a pretense of collaboration. Students served on the redistricting committee, but their sensible, constructive, and moderate proposals were rejected out of hand. Students showed up to the August 30 ANC meeting and were prepared to engage the commissioners in a civil discussion about the merits of the co-chairs' plan, but the ANC bizarrely and without warning decided to limit public discussion on this crucial issue to 22 minutes--the length of a standard television sitcom. On one level, I can understand the co-chairs' concerns. They want a quiet and clean neighborhood. So do I. I'm writing a dissertation, after all. But the co-chairs' reflexive opposition to all student input has blinded them to the most constructive way to achieve that goal, which is not ever tighter control of students' lives or ever-stiffer resistance to anodyne University proposals. Those attitudes promote a zero-sum approach to neighborhood affairs that is guaranteed only to make the Instead, it's time for the co-chairs and others to meet with students to design an ANC that fairly represents all parties--not just because it's the law, but because it's the right, and the mature, thing to do.

Paul Musgrave is a Ph.D. student in Government at Georgetown University. He moved to Washington from Yorba Linda, Calif., where he was special assistant to the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. A 2004 graduate of Indiana University, he was a George Mitchell Scholar at University College Dublin.