Referendum seeks to overturn new city 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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On Tuesday, proponents of a referendum seeking to overturn the new district lines passed by Berkeley City Council intend to submit the signatures they spent the last month gathering, a move that could prolong the three-year effort to create a student supermajority City Council district.

In December, the council passed the Berkeley Student District Campaign map with a 6-3 vote, forgoing the alternative United Student District Amendment map. Both establish a District 7 with a population of nearly 90 percent 18- to 29-year-olds, and many supporters of both hope a student district could lead to a student elected to the City Council.

However, the BSDC district excludes several Northside cooperatives and residence halls USDA map supporters specifically sought to include when they proposed it about five months after the BSDC map’s introduction. USDA supporters launched the referendum in an attempt to get a map that includes the excluded residences.

After receiving the referendum petitions, the registrar of voters has 30 days to verify whether its supporters have gathered the required 5,275 signatures from Berkeley voters. The outcome will mark the next and perhaps final step in a process that began in 2011. Spurred by the need to draw new lines based on updated census data, the decision also follows a 2012 change in the city’s charter designed to allow for the creation of a student district.

A student district

BSDC map proponents worry the referendum will jeopardize the city’s shot at a new student district.

“If you sign the petition in support of a referendum, you are signing a referendum that says, ‘I want to overturn the law that made the student district a reality,’ ” said ASUC External Affairs Vice President Safeena Mecklai.

Currently, District 7 consists of about 70 percent 18- to 29-year-olds, based on 2010 U.S. census data. The 16 percent the BSDC map adds to that number, Mecklai said, is a significant increase. Mecklai, who has worked on redistricting since 2011, said she does not want to see the work it took to persuade Berkeley residents to accept a student district unraveled.

But referendum proponents see the BSDC map as advocating only some students’ interests by favoring those in Greek housing over those in the Northside cooperatives and dorms.

According to Cal Berkeley Democrats president Sofie Karasek, many Cal Dems board members — who voted to endorse the referendum — live on Northside and would not be included in the BSDC student district.

“It’s important to give students an opportunity to organize and mobilize in city politics,” she said. “And students will be more likely to do that if they have a vote in the district where most students are.”

BSDC opponents have also accused their opponents of gerrymandering, claiming the more progressive Northside co-ops were purposely excluded to make the district more conservative. But according to Mecklai, such claims are false and “unquantified.”

To compromise or not to compromise

The referendum coalition had gathered about 3,000 signatures as of Jan. 12, said referendum proponent Councilmember Kriss Worthington. If successful, the issue could go on the June or November ballot, depending on what the council decides. In this case, the council would not meet the April 1 deadline to have a new map go into effect by November, when four council seats will be up for election.

The city clerk does not yet have an estimate of how much it would cost to place the issue on the ballot, although Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said it could range from $20,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Alternatively, city spokesperson Matthai Chakko said the council could rescind its decision on the BSDC map and try to agree on a new one, possibly before April 1. Worthington prefers this option.

“I don’t think there’s any reason for them not to compromise,” he said. “It’s really not that hard to have a plan that’s fair.”

Mecklai said she would also prefer to draw a new map if the referendum succeeds but argues that a new map would be less democratic because its creation would circumvent the process of public scrutiny that the BSDC map underwent.

According to BSDC supporter and UC Berkeley alumnus Eric Panzer, this approach would set a bad precedent of allowing a minority of the council and voters “to dictate to everyone else.”

The council compromised earlier, in 2002, when Berkeley’s previous redistricting effort faced a successful referendum. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said he views two referendums in a row as evidence that Berkeley needs a new redistricting system.

“I feel that going forward we need to take the power of redistricting out of the hands of the city council,” he said. “Maybe it can prevent the same fiasco.”

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