Council approves climate provision; College students ask for more early voting access

An electric car gets powered up at the charging station outside the Harrisonburg Electric Commission’s office on N. Liberty Street.

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

The city council on Tuesday adopted its updated plan for what city leaders envision for Harrisonburg in 2039, which now includes a provision aimed at “effectively responding to and reducing climate change impacts.”

Council member Laura Dent proposed the new section, titled “Community Resiliency and the Natural Environment” during the council’s retreat last month, and it calls for the city to take steps to encourage renewable energy sources and the reduction of emissions that could contribute to climate change. 

“Investments in sustainable assets and infrastructure have established a strong foundation for the future,” the section reads.

One example of a step the city could take, Dent said, would be laying groundwork for more electric vehicle charging stations. 

This comes three days after scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a detailed 2021 report estimating that the world could reach or exceed a 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) temperature increase within the next two decades. Dent alluded to the report, which also said that limiting the extent of warming and preventing the most severe climate impacts depends on steps taken this decade.

“What we had thought was the worst case we wanted to avoid — a 1.5 degrees centigrade increase in temperature — is now the best case scenario,” Dent said. “Meaning it’s a whole lot worse than we thought.”

She said other government actions could bolster efforts to curtail that worst case scenario. For instance, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill the U.S. Senate approved this week calls for $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid and include more renewable energy sources

“That’s exactly what I was lobbying … Sen. Warner about: $17.5 billion for clean buses, which we would love to have, and also $7.5 billion to develop electric vehicle charging stations across the country,” Dent said. “And these are, as the revisions statement says, ‘investments into sustainable assets and infrastructure’ that we ought to be considering,” Dent said. “So thank you.”

The infrastructure bill still must pass the U.S. House, and Congress must agree on the funding legislation to pay for it. 

Encouraging college students to vote

Charles Conner, the chairman of James Madison University’s student government legislative affairs committee, introduced to the city council a joint proposal between the student government committee and JMU College Republicans and JMU College Democrats calling for creating a permanent early voting spot on JMU’s campus “to encourage democratic engagement and help increase voter turnout.”

“One of the main issues that college students often face when they go to vote is that the hectic nature of their academic schedule makes them unable to vote on Election Day,” Conner said.

He added that it prevents them from performing several other civic duties like serving as election officers, a problem he encountered last year when he was recruiting them.

Turnout out the precinct at JMU’s Convocation Center was strikingly low last fall even as other precincts across Harrisonburg reported high participation. Voters at the Convo – known as the “South East Central” precinct, cast 266 ballots. That worked out to be 23% turnout rate of active voters (and 9.1% of the total registered voters at that precinct), according to Virginia Department of Elections voter registration reports. Overall, about 74% of active votes in Harrisonburg cast ballots last fall, and statewide turnout was 81%

Conner said he was hopeful the city could receive some federal funds to help with the effort. The Virginia General Assembly approved earmarking $3 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to support early voting expansion, including Sunday voting. The legislature pegged another $1.5 million to go toward voter education efforts. 

“We hope that that is used for this proposal,” Conner said.

Council member Chris Jones said, as a JMU alumnus and former Student Government Association senator at the school, he doesn’t support or oppose a precinct opening early, but said “the registration is key.”

“Whether we extend the voting time period or not, we’ve gotta get those numbers up and have actual participation,” Jones said. “Because you’ll have students that are not registered to vote here, and you need to verify that, and you need to verify that people understand why it’s important to vote here.”

He said many students are active in the community in other ways, including “volunteering and giving great community service and making Harrisonburg an even better city.”

“While I support in theory the concept of folks voting early, because that’s healthy, we need to make sure folks actually vote before we put energy and resources into it,” Jones said.

Mayor Deanna Reed encouraged Conner to return to future council meetings.

Bipartisan message for vaccinations

Attending the meeting remotely from home in a self-quarantine because of a recent COVID scare, Dent encouraged anyone who has questions or might be feeling symptoms “go ahead and get tested, and above all, please get vaccinated.” 

Council member George Hirschmann, the only independent on the council, and Reed echoed Dent’s call.  

Hirschmann cited the increase in Delta variant cases across the country and in the community. He said giving the vaccine serious consideration would “be to the benefit of all.”

Reed said she doesn’t want Harrisonburg to backslide and start seeing infection rates similar to the peaks of last year

“We will all do what we need to do to protect each other, which is get vaccinated, and if you’re not vaccinated then wear a mask, and if you feel uncomfortable if you’re vaccinated, wear a mask,” Reed said. “Because we have to protect our children. And so we should really be thinking about them right now, because they’re the most vulnerable right now.”

Also at the meeting

The council approved three memorandums regarding sewers: a special use permit to replace an existing sanitary sewer pump station on Harrison Street, a request from Virginia Self Storage Partners II, LLC, to provide sanitary sewer service onto property on East Market Street in Rockingham County, and amendments to a provision in the city’s code about “Sewer System,” which came at the request of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Sewer Authority.

The council also: 

  • introduced the Fire Department’s new deputy chief of support services, Marques Bush;
  • and reappointed Mary Ann Alger and Doug Light to the Economic Development Advisory Committee.

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