TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Students from Cornell University and Ithaca College are estimated to make up around two thirds of Ithaca’s population when the semester is in session. The constituency fundamentally shapes the way representative districts are drawn in the city and even the county, and emerged as the central point of discussion at a public input session for both of the redistricting groups on Tuesday.
The City of Ithaca’s Redistricting Working Group and Tompkins County Independent Redistricting Commission held a joint meeting to gather public input and guidance as they prepare to redraw the city’s wards and county’s legislature districts. Both groups are chaired by Henrik “Hank” Dullea, who opened the meeting mentioning some of the criteria that both groups are following to redraw the maps.
Dullea said, “The districts should be compact, contiguous, reflect communities of interest, reflect census blocks and be consistent — where we can be — with municipal boundaries. We do not look to have partisan preference of any type nor preference for incumbents.”
Paramount to drawing districts is maintaining nearly equal populations, which is where the deeper conversations lay with how students should be considered in Ithaca’s redistricting process. While the Ithaca population has grown across the city, the wards where student populations are concentrated saw the greatest jump.
Ward 1 which includes the South Hill neighborhood where many Ithaca College students find housing saw a 19.24% increase, and Ward 4, which encompoasses much of College Town and the East Hill area, saw a 19.92 percent increase. (Ward 4’s jump is partially due to a change in the way a census block is drawn to include more student housing that was previously in Ward 5.)
Ward 1 Alderperson Cynthia Brock was one of the first speakers at the input session. She detailed her view on a lopsided distribution of issues across Ithaca’s five wards.
Alderperson Brock said, “I really encourage the committee to look at more equitably distributing our student population across the different wards if possible, so that we can distribute the ability to represent our constituency.”
She argued that wards that have larger student populations — namely the city’s Ward 4, as well as 3rd and 5th — have “a smaller constituency to which they are more responsive to.” Conversely, Brock made the points that the Ward 1, and Ward 2 are generally more demanding on their representatives since they are composed of more full-time residents with a deeper stake in the community, but also because of a concentration of “pressing issues” within these districts.
Brock argued that her own district is particularly demanding. Ward 1 is the largest ward by area in the city and the least compact. She listed off various issues in the meeting and in an email sent to the redistricting groups, such as the city’s business district and commercial industry sites, the major traffic artery of Route 13, flooding and stormwater infrastructure issues, the wastewater treatment plant, the Ithaca Farmers market which is slated for a major renovation, and the homeless encampments. These issues and topics, Brock argued, spur constituents to demand “near-constant advocacy” from their representatives.
Brock also made the point that Cornell University takes care of many services for its on-campus students like sidewalk repairs, general maintenance and infrastructure improvements, that normally motivate full-time residents to engage with their local governments. Brock argued that this is one of the reasons why student interest in local politics is lacking.
Brock said, “I really encourage the committee to look at more equitably distributing our student population across the different wards if possible, so that we can distribute the ability to represent our constituency.”
To conclude her input for the redistricting group, Brock shifted to another point. She pushed the city’s redistricting group to include Ithaca’s black population, which is concentrated in the West End and Northern Side/The Flats, within one ward so that they may be bolstered as a voting block.
“I think that’s in the best interest of the city and our constituents,” said Brock.
Brock was followed by Ward 4 Alderperson Patrick Mehler, who kicked back against some of the implications in Brock’s request of the redistricting commission.
“The needs of some districts are not more or less than any of the other districts. I assure you that between the different wards we all face a different assortment of issues,” said Alderperson Mehler.
“I found it a little crazy to suggest that we need to maintain and expand the representative voices of permanent residents on Common Council, when two-thirds of the city are students,” said Mehler.
Mehler later added that, “The census is based on the population and not based on population voting.”
Ward 4, which has a population of 7,594 according to 2020 census data, saw just over 100 voters turn out for the 2021 race between Jorge DeFendini and Alejandro Santana, but Mehler said that “diluting them [students] across four or five different wards is only going to discourage their participation in our city government which I believe we still desperately need more of.”
Mehler also spoke against Brock’s point that Ward 1 and Ward 2 are burdened with more issues.
“The needs of some districts are not more or less than any of the other districts. I assure you that between the different wards we all face a different assortment of issues,” said Mehler.
Later in the input session, Ward 5 Alderperson Robert Cantelmo weighed in on the topic of student participation in local government, making the point that, “Voting is not the only element of civic participation, but I do think it’s incumbent upon any elected leaders to actively sort of seek out and find ways to cultivate participation in their neighborhoods and in their community.”
Cantelmo added that, “Voter turnout is an important metric, but there are structural things beyond the reach of anybody on this call tonight to actually remediate some of those.”
The bulk of Tuesday’s discussion came from elected officials and political committee members. Almost all of the citizens that registered to attend the virtual public input session either did so to listen and learn, or did not appear when their name was called from a list to offer input. This may have been due to a technical issue with the virtual meeting, but the result was that the redistricting groups were left with a serious dearth of input from the constituencies of the Ithaca area. To leave comments for either group, their contact information can be found through the City of Ithaca’s website or Tompkins County’s website.