Berkeley rally supports referendum against new district lines

Melissa Wen/Staff
Paid signature gatherer Noah Miller talks with volunteer Judy Shelton at the downtown Berkeley Farmer's Market.

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About two dozen referendum supporters crowded into a Berkeley cafe for a rally Saturday morning — the halfway point in an ongoing campaign to overturn new district lines Berkeley City Council passed in December.

The rally, called 14 Days Left, was one of the campaign’s final efforts to collect the required number of signatures to pass the referendum against the Berkeley Student District Campaign. Though the City Council voted in favor of the BSDC map after a three-year effort to establish a student supermajority district, those participating in the rally protested what they saw as the map’s seclusive or “gerrymandering” nature.

Backed by three City Council members — Kriss Worthington, Jesse Arreguin and Max Anderson — the referendum effort criticizes the BSDC map for excluding Northside co-ops and residence halls. Because the co-ops vote more progressively, their absence would make the district more conservative, according to Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Berkeley rent board commissioner and a legislative aid for Worthington.

“Doing redistricting this way is a gerrymander that’s unfair to the dorms, the co-ops and the neighborhoods,” Worthington said about the map.

On Saturday, referendum supporters filled a room in the Mudrakers Cafe, bustling with petition papers and talk of signature-gathering strategies. At the Berkeley Farmers Market, petition holders called out for registered voters.

“Even though it’s the holiday season, we’ve had a huge turnout in the number of people that are gathering signatures,” said Stefan Elgstrand, author of the alternative United Student District Amendment map and an intern for Worthington, at the rally. “I’m feeling optimistic about getting the referendum through.”

In order to pass, the referendum needs at least 5,275 signatures from registered Berkeley voters within the next two weeks.

According to Worthington, about 1,000 signatures were gathered last week. As of Saturday morning, not all of this week’s petitions had been turned in yet, and 125 volunteers have signed up to collect signatures. Worthington said the Berkeley Referendum Coalition also aims to raise $20,000 to hire paid signature gatherers.

But opponents of the referendum worry that prolonging the process will ruin the city’s shot at a new student district. If no compromise comes to fruition, the issue will go on the ballot, possibly in June or November, which would mean that the new district might not be implemented until 2016, according to Councilmember Gordon Wozniak.

George Beier, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, said he understands the referendum supporters’ point of view but does not want to toss out a good map in order to strive for a perfect one.

“This is our big chance to get a student district, and I think this referendum imperils that,” he said. “It would be a terrible mistake to lose this chance.”

Denim Ohmit, vice president of finance for Cal Berkeley Democrats, believes the opposite — that more perfect district lines are attainable and worth all the effort of a referendum.

“Why not get the best district possible?” Ohmit said at the rally. “Redistricting is an opportunity that only comes once every ten years.”

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