Panel discusses possibility of student supermajority district

A UC Berkeley student has not been elected to the Berkeley City Council since 1984, when Nancy Skinner became the first student to ever serve as a council member.

After 27 years, students are working to change that with the creation of a student supermajority district.

But students are not confident that any proposal they put forward would succeed in the ultimate goal of creating a district where at least 80 percent of the constituents are students.

Two years after Skinner joined the council, the city altered the way council members were elected by implementing a district-based voting system and mandated in the city charter that future redistricting would closely resemble the district boundaries established in 1986 — legislation that Skinner says hampered student efforts to win a council seat thereafter.

Not only does the charter define and preserve district limits, but it also stipulates that adjustments to the boundaries — which are re-evaluated every 10 years to accommodate changes in the city’s census data — must not draw council members out of their district and must maintain nearly equal population distributions across the city’s eight districts.

“The architects of the district system, their purpose was to divide the student and progressive votes,” said Skinner, who now serves on the state assembly. “They divided up the student housing into at least a minimum of four districts — they were very specific, and they were trying to ensure that their intent would be permanent.”

Students working with the ASUC, UC Berkeley’s student government, tried to redraw district lines to create a student supermajority district in 2001, but their proposal was not charter-compliant because it deviated too far from the 1986 boundaries.

Attempting to pick up where his predecessors left off, ASUC External Affairs Vice President Joey Freeman said student efforts need to go further — they need to change the city charter.

“We have the same idea in mind … but we’re taking it a step further and bringing it to the ballot — that’s the only way to make it a reality,” Freeman said.

UC Berkeley students currently constitute a large portion of District 7, which encompasses a significant portion of neighborhoods directly south of campus. Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who has represented the district for the last 15 years, has emphasized throughout his tenure that he is a strong voice for students on the council and has helped several young people win office in various city and county positions.

But at a panel to discuss the possibility of a student supermajority  district Wednesday night — sponsored by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Darryl Moore and Susan Wengraf alongside the UC Berkeley Office of Government and Community Relations, Berkeley City College and several other local organizations — Worthington expressed concern that the creation of such a district would change “the political complexion of the city” and threaten progressive voices currently on the council.

“It’s potentially a great idea — but it depends how it’s done,” he said. “Some of the ways some people are proposing it are actually alienating the voters of Berkeley.”

When asked by panel member Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley professor of political science and public policy, what an ideal student district would look like, Worthington said “one that doesn’t align students to make it look like somebody from the more moderate side is going to win the seat.”

Still, advocates of a student district maintain that the student population should exert an influence that is representative of the fact that students make up 25 percent of the city’s population, Freeman said.

“Everyone agrees they really are a community,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “It’s time to have a student on the council.”

Sarah Mohamed is the city government lead reporter.