The charter amendment Measure R doesn’t redistrict Berkeley at all. It undistricts it.
A little history: District Elections were instituted in 1986 to end citywide elections for all council seats. It was a measure put forth by the conservative hills residents against the monopoly the much more progressive flatlands of the city exercised. For several elections in a row, a progressive coalition had been given every seat on Berkeley City Council, and the proposal was put forth under the banner of fairness and neighborhood common interest.
The mayor at the time was Loni Hancock, who is now our Californiastate senator.
Cut to 25 years later. Hancock and her husband and current city of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates have almost completely gamed the district elections system and now run a political machine that controls virtually every aspect of political life in Berkeley and throughout much of the East Bay in the Bay Area.
This is a consolidation election for the Bates machine, and it has lots of irons in the fire. Bates’ greatest irritants have been the council members from the two districts with almost all of UC Berkeley’s students, District 7 — which is represented by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, southside of campus — and District 4 — which is represented by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, Downtown and west. These are the most progressive council members. Try as Bates might, progressives have resisted firmly, and the liberal student-heavy districts keep electing them.
So here comes Measure R. In the deceptive arguments they repeat as often as they can, the machine politicians touting R insist that it will enable the council to divide the city into districts that respect geographical boundaries, neighborhoods and other communities of interest — code for making a so-called student-majority district — as defined by state law. First, let’s get rid of the complete bullshit. State law doesn’t have anything to do with any of those words. But the most important deception is that any of these democratic-sounding priorities will be enforced by the law, which actually says that the council “shall consider topography, cohesiveness,” etc. Wonderful-sounding things.
Beside that sentence, the rest of the measure simply deletes the boundary lines for council districts that had been carefully written, street by street, into the law in order to prevent future councils, just like this one, from manipulating the boundaries for political purposes. Measure R doesn’t change district lines. It just changes who gets to draw district lines. You can rest assured that, if the charter is changed, this council shall consider all the things it’s supposed to consider. Then it will draw the district lines however it feels like.
Bottom line: If the council really wanted to draw a student district, or any new set of boundary lines untethered to the lines now in the charter in order to update a system they like to characterize as “outdated and unfair,” all they had to do was to give us a charter amendment that replaces the existing lines with the new lines they propose.
Instead, this amendment takes the right to vote on how to cut the city up away from the voters. It puts it solely into the City Council’s hands, without any guarantee of even actually making a student district, much less what kind of student district they’d make.
That’s the way political machines like it. All power, no responsibility.
In the best of worlds, the so-called redistricting measure should have gotten the ballot letter it really deserves: “G” for Gerrymander. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, a wise religious writer and historian named Lord John Dalberg-Acton warned a century and a half ago. The progress of democracy lies in preventing the consolidation of authority exemplified by exercises in manipulation like Measure R.
Dave Blake is the vice-chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and a former chair of the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board.
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