U-Md. students compete in off-campus elections

University of Maryland students Alex Tobin, left, and Zack Miller are running for separate seats on the College Park City Council. Photos by Dan Schere

It’s a two-minute walk from the edge of the University of Maryland’s campus to the Old Town neighborhood in College Park, where senior Zack Miller’s fraternity is located.

The house is in good-enough condition. But Miller, 21, thinks life in the college town would be better for all if landlords could legally make changes to their properties and students could feel safe going out at night.

“I just feel like I can’t sit back anymore,” he said while strolling down Knox Road to the Tau Epsilon Phi house to catch up on homework.

In the Nov. 7 nonpartisan City Council election, Miller will be on the ballot, competing for the District 3 seat against incumbent Robert Day, 53. Miller is Jewish. So is U-Md. junior Alex Tobin, 20, who is running against four other candidates in the city’s District 2. There has never been a U-Md. undergrad elected to the College Park City Council, students said.

Tobin, like Miller, said he wants to give students more of a say in a city where they make up about half the population, estimated at a little over 32,000 in 2016.

“I think it’s important to have a voice advocating for communities to come together,” he said.

Miller said Old Town is a hot spot for students to live because it has single-family homes at reasonable rents. And it’s close to popular bars and restaurants along Route 1.

But because Old Town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, regulations stemming from that status prevent landlords from making certain changes to their property, he said.

“What we find is these housing regulations prevent landlords from improving their houses,” Miller said. “So instead of students living in houses designed for students, they’re living in houses that are extremely old and barely maintained, and they can’t make any modifications.”

Miller and Tobin said that relationships have improved between College Park’s permanent residents and students who live there, and that they hope to build on that.

As he sipped iced tea at the Bagel Place on Route 1, Tobin explained that before 2015, noise complaints were frequent in Old Town, mainly due to fraternities there. The noise increased on Saturdays, he said, because of tailgates prior to sporting events. The university’s Interfraternity Council resolved the issue by limiting tailgating to campus.

“It’s important for students to realize that they’re part of a greater community where people are going to work and
trying to raise kids, and drunken noise very early in the morning or late at night is not desired,” he said.

As a student, Tobin has served on the city’s Neighborhood Quality of Life Committee, composed of both students and permanent residents and focuses on improving their relationship. District 1 Councilmember Fazlul Kabir said the committee has been a key part of building trust between the two communities.

“The major concerns are parties, trash and noise on the weekend, but things are improving a lot,” he said.

Kabir said the University of Maryland Student Government Association typically sends a representative to council meetings, but that student is not on the council and can’t vote. College Park, he said, also faces the more fundamental issue that all college towns face — the students live there for four years, making it difficult for them to gain political traction.

“By the time they get to know the city and the community, it’s time for them to leave,” Kabir said. “So that’s the reason we don’t see many students running.”

One concern for students is public safety at night. Miller said many students are afraid to walk downtown due to violent crime including shootings, robberies and assaults. He hopes to direct law enforcement’s attention to these issues instead of what he feels are less important crimes.

“My friend the other day was put in handcuffs for jaywalking,” Miller said. “I support the police, but I want them to better serve their constituents.”

Miller also said he thinks a series of bridges or tunnels crossing Route 1 would make navigating busy intersections safer for all pedestrians.

Tobin said another way to get students more involved would be to make College Park a no-excuse absentee ballot city. To obtain an absentee ballot currently, residents must be away from the city on Election Day; unable to get to the polls due to illness or disability; confined to an institution; have a death or serious illness in the family; or be a full-time student outside of the city. These requirements, he said, are too rigid.

“Those excuses do not include full-time students, part-time workers or people who have to take care of their kids at childcare who technically do not leave the city but could face negative consequences if they took time out of their day to go the polls,” he said.

Tobin said running a campaign as a full-time student sometimes means holding five separate email conversations at once while taking notes in class.

“I’m coordinating with people who want to canvass, volunteers, journalists … I’m coordinating with the city with regards to my campaign finance reports,” he said. “Other council people have to do this as well.

“They have full-time jobs and give presentations to their boss and then have to shift over to city issues.”

Miller also must manage his time between the campaign, classwork and a part-time job as a bartender’s assistant at a nearby restaurant.

“My days are very busy, but what’s great about the campaign is that everything is done electronically,” he said. “So in between class and work I’m doing the campaign.”

Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 7, there is a more lasting question in Kabir’s mind than who will win that day. What will the students do after graduation?

“I hope they will stay in College Park,” he said.

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

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