Judge to decide district lines of Berkeley’s November election

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A judge will decide Wednesday which district lines to use in the Berkeley city election this November, following nearly half a year of controversy that ensued after the suspension of a new map passed by Berkeley City Council in December.

Since 2011, the City Council has been seeking to implement new district lines that create a student supermajority district, with the intention of possibly getting a student elected to council. A map passed in December — called the Berkeley Student District Campaign map — did so by allotting to District 7 a population of 86 percent student-aged residents. But it was suspended by a referendum in February for excluding progressive student residents on Northside and for splitting neighborhoods.

Upon that map’s suspension, the council majority voted to place the fate of the BSDC map in the hands of voters this November. In the meantime, they filed a lawsuit asking a judge to temporarily implement the suspended map so as to avoid conducting another election with the outdated lines the city has used since 2002. On Tuesday, judge Evelio Grillo heard from the city’s legal representation as well as BSDC opponents — including three council members — who urged the judge to consider other maps.

Although Grillo did not yet decide on a map, he did say at the hearing that he would definitely not leave the old district lines in place this November. According to lawsuit documents, districts as defined by the current map deviate up to about 18 percent from their ideal population configuration.

Grillo also questioned whether students are not a “monolithic” group “irrespective of where they live,” in which case the BSDC map’s exclusion of Northside dorms and student cooperatives would be less important. Opponents of the BSDC proposed as alternatives the United Student District Amendment map, which was previously considered and turned down by the council, and other maps that include Northside students.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said Northside students do have distinct interests and noted that residents drawn out of District 7 by the BSDC map are currently constituents of Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the District 7 incumbent whose seat is up for election this year. Drawing constituents out of their incumbent’s district, Arreguin said, is politically unfair.

Aside from discussing the merits of each map, attorneys also debated alleged Brown Act violations sent to the city early April. The allegations are twofold: that the City Council violated open governance legislation when it voted both to authorize hiring legal counsel and to put the BSDC map up for a vote on the November instead of June ballot, without giving proper public notice that it planned to make such decisions.

Margaret Prinzing, an attorney hired by the city, argued that the city already complied with the Brown Act because although the city did not give notice of these specific actions, it did give proper notice that it would discuss the suspended map.

“The Brown Act is a very practical law,” Prinzing said. “It doesn’t exist as a trap to bring city government to a screeching halt if there’s been a technical violation.”

Nonetheless, Prinzing said, the city council would give itself a chance to cure the alleged violation at their Tuesday meeting.

Melissa Wen covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.