City redistricting to be decided in November election

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Berkeley voters will now have the power to decide the fate of the city’s future district lines after Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday to place the city’s previously approved student district on the November ballot.

The council originally passed a new student-majority district — the Berkeley Student District Campaign map — by a 6-3 vote in December, triggering a successful referendum campaign from those who criticized the map for its exclusion of Northside co-ops and dorms, among other issues. Due to the referendum, the approved map was suspended, and the council had to either choose a new redistricting plan or place the BSDC map on the ballot.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council decided 6-3 to defer the issue to voters, with Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington opposed, meaning Berkeley residents will choose whether to accept or reject the BSDC map during the November election. If voters decide to reject the map, the council will again have to go through the redistricting process, leaving the current district lines in effect in the meantime.

“It’s an issue that’s divided our community, and I don’t know if there is a compromise that is acceptable,” said Mayor Tom Bates at the meeting. “The best way to do this is to place it on the ballot and let the people decide.”

Because Tuesday’s decision means the city will fail to meet the April 1 deadline to submit new district lines for the 2014 midterm election, it is unclear which boundaries will be in place for the November election. Therefore, the city plans to seek outside legal counsel and go to the state courts, where a judge will mandate an interim map to use for the election.

While ASUC redistricting director and BSDC map supporter Noah Efron said he thinks it is a good idea to place the map on the ballot, he noted that a risk remains that voters may reject the map and prolong the creation of student-majority district.

“When the referendum campaign started, we warned them there was a chance that we could lose everything and the effort for a student district would be for naught,” Efron said. “They (pursued) a referendum despite that risk, but that’s where we are now.”

Stefan Elgstrand, a UC Berkeley senior and vice treasurer of the referendum coalition, expressed disappointment that the council opted for an “undemocratic” and “unreasonable” way to resolve the redistricting issue.

Worthington and Arreguin raised similar concerns that resorting to the courts could result in legal maneuvering done outside of the public’s purview after Bates suggested at the meeting that conversations with an outside attorney may be done in closed sessions.

“It’s not an issue that requires a closed session, and (doing so) will exclude the community,” Arreguin said.

On Monday, Arreguin submitted to the city clerk a charter amendment that would transfer redistricting power from the City Council to an independent redistricting commission comprising Berkeley citizens. The amendment, if Arreguin gathers enough signatures by May 8, would be placed on the November ballot. Coupled with this measure would be a compromise map that would include Northside student residences and create a new district west of San Pablo Avenue.

“There is no reason to me why the council simply could not come to the table and work with us to try to reach an agreement other than arrogance and intransigence,” Arreguin said.

As of now, no dates have been set for consultation with an outside attorney, and it remains unclear which temporary map a judge will select for the November elections, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Jeff Landa covers city news. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JeffLanda.