Berkeley City Council holds off on independent redistricting commission

Cesar Ruiz/Staff

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Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to table a proposal that would have created a ballot measure to amend the city charter to enable an independent body to oversee city redistricting.

The council is responsible for redistricting, or the altering of city voting lines, which critics claim could lead to biased judgment. Proponents of the Citizens Redistricting Commission say it would establish a body with no political ties. The item was ultimately referred to the Fair Campaign Practices Commission for further consideration, rather than placed on the November ballot.

All of the council members who spoke of the proposed amendment expressed support for the idea of an independent redistricting commission, but many were concerned that the proposal needed to be more carefully examined and should be vetted more by community members.

But public commenters spoke in favor of placing the amendment on the November ballot, rather than waiting.

“There is absolutely no reason why Berkeley should not be implementing this as an early adopter,” said Berkeley resident Sophie Hahn at the meeting. “You don’t gain anything by waiting for two or four years. It’s time to bring this fairness and transparency to the process.”

For Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, the outcome of Tuesday night’s vote was “political payback.”

Anthony Sanchez, Arreguin’s chief of staff, alleged that Mayor Tom Bates rallied against placing the redistricting commission on the November ballot because Arreguin spearheaded the Downtown Initiative, an unrelated measure that would regulate development in Downtown Berkeley. Bates has publicly opposed the Downtown Initiative.

Arreguin recounted an encounter at the council meeting in which the mayor allegedly told Sanchez he would not support the redistricting commission in response to Arreguin’s initiative.

Bates, however, denied that any such conversation with Sanchez occurred, adding that his decision to hold off on the redistricting commission amendment was because it needed to be looked over further and there was no urgent need for the commission.

“There has been no preliminary meeting about this. There has been no citizen input into this document. I think it’s way premature,” Bates said at the meeting.

Although Councilmember Laurie Capitelli collaborated with Arreguin on the amendment, he said Tuesday that it needed deeper evaluation to determine “possible unintended consequences.”

Supporters of the redistricting commission included the local branch of the League of Women Voters and some members of Common Cause, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak expressed concern about how placing the amendment on the ballot could affect the outcome of the Berkeley Student District Campaign map, which would create a student-majority district, on the November ballot. Wozniak said he would rather see the redistricting commission on the 2016 ballot to not detract from the map referendum.

Arreguin said he will most likely start an initiative to put the redistricting commission on the ballot through a signature campaign.

“I will go door to door in the districts of Berkeley and say, ‘This is the redistricting amendment that your council member didn’t want you to vote on,’ ” he said at the meeting.

Nico Correia is the lead city reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @nicolocorreia.

A previous version of this article stated that supporters of the redistricting commission included Common Cause. In fact, Common Cause has not endorsed the commission, although some members have expressed support for it.