Berkeley City Council files lawsuit to implement recently suspended district lines

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Update 4/8/14: The city’s hearing date has been rescheduled to April 29.

After the city filed a lawsuit Thursday to temporarily implement a set of recently suspended district lines for the November election, a law firm and a public interest organization alleged that Berkeley City Council violated a government transparency law in the way they decided to do so.

The City Council passed a district map — the Berkeley Student District Campaign map — last December, which was suspended in early February. Although BSDC critics agreed with the map’s establishment of a long-sought-after student-dominated district of about 90 percent 18- to 29-year-olds, they accused the map of excluding several Northside student residences, including the more progressive student cooperatives, and splitting certain neighborhood groups.

Upon the suspension of the BSDC map, the City Council voted 6-3 on March 11 to put the map to a vote on the November ballot. But because that decision leaves the city with no new districts to use for the November election itself, the council also voted the same day to hire legal representation to help them get a court decision about which map to use this fall.

The city has now filed a lawsuit in the Alameda County Superior Court to have the BSDC map implemented this fall. The lawsuit argues that to use the current district lines would ignore significant changes in the city’s population and violate the city charter’s mandate that new districts be used this November.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, though, called the lawsuit a “wasteful boondoggle.” Arreguin voted against the BSDC map, and was named, along with other BSDC opponents and Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson, as “real parties in interest” in the suit, as their interests are contrary to what the city is pursuing.

The lawsuit has been further challenged by two groups contacted by Arreguin’s office: the First Amendment Coalition and a Sacramento law firm. Both sent letters to the city manager last week alleging that the City Council’s March 11 decision to consult an attorney violated the Brown Act. The letters stated that, contrary to the Brown Act’s regulations, the issue of hiring legal counsel had not been placed beforehand on the council agenda and was determined absent of a chance for public comment.

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, the city has not yet prepared a response to the allegations.

According to Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition and writer of one of the letters, the council can correct the alleged violation by voting again whether to hire legal counsel in a meeting that complies with the Brown Act.

“There’s uncertainty hanging over the City Council if it chooses foolishly, in my view, not to cure and correct the violation,” Scheer said. “To cure and correct it doesn’t take much time.”

If the council does not cure the violation, Scheer said, the results of their current legal proceedings could be invalidated.

The other letter, written by Richard Miadich of the law firm Olson Hagel & Fishburn, also alleges that the City Council violated the charter by putting the BSDC map on the November ballot instead of the June ballot — which they did out of worry that many students would be out of town in June.

At a Monday hearing, a judge agreed to hear the city’s petition on April 23.

Meanwhile, Worthington still hopes the city will drop the litigation and opt instead to implement a compromise map. Although the council has already voted against a compromise, Worthington plans to bring up the issue again at the council’s April 29 meeting.

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

A previous version of this article stated that the district lines set by the Berkeley Student District Campaign map had been overturned by a referendum. In fact, they were suspended pending a November vote.