City council weighs new redistricting option as referendum decision looms

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As Berkeley City Council awaits the final verdict on a referendum that seeks to overturn the recently passed student district, Mayor Tom Bates has suggested an option that could take city redistricting to the state courts.

The council has been in the process of redistricting since 2012, with the intent of filling District 7 with enough students that a student might be more easily elected to the city council. Though it passed such a map in December, the referendum now threatens to upset the status quo and, if successful, will chuck a brand new set of options at the council’s table.

Although referendum supporters also want a student district, they condemn the recently passed map for its exclusion of several residence halls east of campus and student co-ops on Northside. On Jan. 21, the campaign claimed it had gathered enough signatures to capsize the current map, although the count still awaits official verification from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

Should the referendum succeed, the city charter outlines two basic choices for the council: repeal the map and possibly draft a new one or, if the council stands by its original conception, put the measure on the ballot.

“The issue is whether the council feels like if what they’ve done is the right thing to do,” Bates said.

The recently passed map would be automatically suspended, according to the charter, begging the question of which districts to use for this November’s election. For new lines to go into effect by then, they must be submitted to the county by April 1.

“There are many hypothetical things that could happen,” said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. “But at this point, they’re hypothetical.”

Most recently, Bates suggested in an interview that if the council misses the April deadline, they could ask the state courts to decide on an interim map to use for just the upcoming election.

The California Supreme Court took on such a responsibility in 2012, when faced with the possibility that the Senate district map might be suspended and put on the November ballot. The court considered several redistricting options and ultimately decided on the original map.

But councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, who support the referendum, said in this case, alternatives to the contested map are more promising.

“Why would a judge order something done that the voters have gotten the signatures to stop?” Worthington said.

Arreguin and Worthington maintain that instead of taking the ballot option, the council should repeal the map it passed and hurry to draw a compromise before April that includes the Northside residences.

But Bates expressed doubt that the council has enough time to do so, because by the time the final verdict on the referendum arrives, the following meeting might not make a decision in time.
California law, though, allows the council to call a special meeting at any time with 24 hours notice.

The city council faced a successful referendum the last time it tried to redraw districts. That time, it repealed the contested map in November 2001, debated between new maps in February 2002 and made a decision in early March.

“We’re not that far apart,” Arreguin said of a possible compromise. “If the council is willing to enter into this in good faith, we can work out an agreement.”

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