Berkeley commissioners discuss redistricting, public financing proposals

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At meetings last week, Berkeley commissioners decided on the next steps for two election-related measures: one related to the city’s redistricting process and another proposing public financing for local candidates.

The city’s Open Government Commission decided Thursday to have a subcommittee revise a proposal to conduct redistricting through an independent commission. The same night, it decided at its Fair Campaign Practices Commission meeting — the same commissioners make up both commissions — to continue discussion on a plan to offer public money to candidates for local office.

The redistricting proposal was referred to commissioners last June, after Berkeley City Council decided against putting the measure up to a vote on November’s ballot. The city is divided into eight districts, which much be adjusted about every decade to account for changes in the population. Currently, City Council is charged with adopting new district lines. The proposal puts redistricting in the hands of a 13-member citizen commission, whose members may not have served as staff to the mayor or a council member within the past two years.

“Over the past 20 years, redistricting in Berkeley has been very controversial,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who co-sponsored the redistricting measure, at the Thursday meeting. “When politicians are charged with drawing their own electoral boundaries, there is an inherent conflict of interest.”

Since its initial proposal, the redistricting plan has been revised to remove some specific details related to the implementation of the redistricting commission, which, according to city staff, would be better suited to be set out in a separate ordinance by the council.

Commissioners will work on further revising the plan and could refer a draft to City Council for further consideration within the next few months.

Meanwhile, commissioners decided to continue discussion on the public financing proposal at a subsequent meeting. The proposal, referred to the commission after being put forth to City Council by Councilmember Kriss Worthington in May 2014, would annually appropriate $4 per Berkeley resident from the city’s general fund and into a Fair Elections Fund. Candidates running for local office could receive payments from the fund, which would give eligible candidates 600 percent of their qualified contributions — meaning contributions from a Berkeley resident not exceeding $50.

“It’s not uncommon for mayoral races to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Jay Costa, a campaign-finance-reform advocate who worked on the proposal. “(Public financing) would allow people who have a small but reasonably sized grassroots base to run a viable campaign.”

Some commissioners, though, expressed concern about earmarking thousands of dollars for the Fair Elections Funds when other pressing needs in the city also require money. Commission chair Brad Smith has put forth an alternative proposal, which sets aside a smaller amount of money to fund interviews and debates for discussion of candidates and ballot measures.

“It’s less money and is providing information to the voters,” Smith said of his proposal.

Both the redistricting and public financing measures would have to be passed by voters before going into effect.

Melissa Wen is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.