Opponents of Measure S criticize city for high legal expenditure

Stefan Elgstrand, second from the left, said he has accrued $25,000 in debt in legal fees as a participant in the city's redistricting lawsuit.
Ariel Hayat/File
Stefan Elgstrand, second from the left, said he has accrued $25,000 in debt in legal fees as a participant in the city's redistricting lawsuit.

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As Berkeley voters head to the polls Tuesday to vote on a measure that in part dictates the boundaries of the city’s student-majority district, opponents of Measure S are openly criticizing the city for what they consider exceedingly large amounts of money spent on a lawsuit over the proposed lines.

Measure S will determine the boundaries of District 7, which spans much of the Southside area and encompasses a majority student-aged population. The proposed map, the Berkeley Student District Campaign map, was criticized for excluding a number of Northside student housing cooperatives. Opponents of the BSDC map held a successful referendum to either consider an alternative map or put the issue on the ballot, the latter of which was chosen.

The city then headed to court to decide which lines would be used for the November election, ultimately deciding to use the BSDC map, pending the voter’s decision on Measure S for its long-term implementation. Opponents of Measure S criticize the city for spending more than $100,000 in legal fees — which some argue is illegal — though the city states that it followed proper procedure.

Stefan Elgstrand, a former student intern for Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, drew the alternative map. Elgstrand said he has accrued $25,000 in debt in legal fees as a participant in the lawsuit.

“(Worthington and I) were forced into court by the city and had to hire legal representation,” Elgstrand said.

Anthony Sanchez, aide to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, claimed that the city spent more than what is allowed by the city code. The city spent about $140,000 on outside counsel, which Sanchez alleges is illegal, as the council must vote upon most contracts that exceed $50,000, pursuant to city code, which he says the council did not.

“The charter explicitly says in plain language that the council has to set an exceedance amount,” Sanchez said.

In March, the council voted and allowed the city attorney to seek outside counsel, but Sanchez said the council was not informed properly of the spending increase.

In an email to the city council Wednesday, City Attorney Zach Cowan said the amount had been disclosed in a quarterly report and added that certain cases were exempted in the code.

“The Council has long exempted some contracts for legal services from this requirement, including contracts for representation in litigation,” Cowan said in the email. “The Berkeley Municipal Code states that certain legal costs, such as for litigation, do not go to Council for authorization.”

Sanchez argues that the charter trumps the code. Councilmember Susan Wengraf, however, said that she has no problem with Measure S and that the opposition had time to bring up these issues. She said the opposition’s claims were “completely unfounded.”

If the measure is voted down, the redistricting process would start over.

Contact Sophie Ho and Frances Fitzgerald at [email protected].