Berkeley Creates Student Majority Council District, Fights Over Details
By Emilie Raguso
What some described as a historic move by the Berkeley City Council to approve a new student-majority district centered around Telegraph Avenue was decried by others Tuesday night as “gerrymandering” aimed at splitting the city’s progressive voice and excluding some of the most active students from the mix.
The fate of Worthington’s district, District 7, has been the focus of most of the outcry about the city’s new redistricting map. Much of the discussion since July has revolved around whether the city would adopt a map that’s been part of the public dialogue since April or one submitted in July after the submission process had officially ended. The newer map was created by Stefan Elgstrand, an intern in Worthington’s office.
The earlier map, via the Berkeley Student District Campaign (BSDC), has District 7 concentrated mostly on the south side of campus, while Elgstrand’s map, the United Student District Amendment (USDA), includes parts of Berkeley’s Northside neighborhood, with fewer blocks included south of campus.
“We have no choice but to go forward with a referendum,” Elgstrand told the council during public comment Tuesday night. He said the BSDC map excludes too many students, many of whom live in Cal co-op houses, dorms and International House.
The city’s population must be split as evenly as possible among the eight council districts, which results in about 14,000 residents per district. As a result, the student-aged population, estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 people, will necessarily be divided. The ultimate question for city officials has been how to make the cuts.
By the numbers, the difference between the two maps is not significant. The BSDC map includes 87 percent student-aged voters, and the USDA map includes 90 percent. But supporters of the USDA map have said the real problem is that too many of the most progressive and diverse students — some of whom currently live in District 7 — are slated to be excluded.
Emotions ran high among council members discussing the maps Tuesday night.
Councilman Max Anderson said he saw the new map as “part of a continuum” of political maneuvering by the council majority aimed to concentrate power while shutting down the efforts of Arreguín and Worthington, whom Anderson described as “the two progressives” on the council. Anderson said the movement started with the 2010 election, and described what he saw as an influx of hefty campaign contributions from Berkeley’s “commercial interests” and an increase in “partisan politics.”
“This is the same rodeo,” he said. “There may be different bulls and different broncos being ridden, but the direction this is moving in is in the same path.”
Accusations flew in both directions.
Councilman Gordon Wozniak claimed that Worthington had, in 2011, tried to “torpedo the whole Student District Campaign” and had previously proposed a map that did not include the co-ops, which have been the focus of so much of the discussion over the past few months.
“He seems to change his argument depending on what year he’s in,” Wozniak said of Worthington.
Worthington bristled at Wozniak’s suggestions, saying he himself was the first member of the council to “address the issue of student districts” and that he had never tried to “torpedo” one of them.
“There’s a clear record in emails and a paper trail,” he said, calling Wozniak’s statements “provably false.”
“I was actually the first person to say we should do what turned into Measure R,” Worthington said. “Nobody else can show you a document. They weren’t even thinking about this back then.”
A lengthy discussion about the maps took place earlier this month when a council majority approved the BSDC map on first reading. Tuesday night, adoption of the map was up for “second reading.” In most instances, once agenda items have gotten to this point in the legal process, there’s little debate or discussion on them. But this was not the case Tuesday night.
Some officials and community members testified that the council should reconsider its previous vote and, instead, approve Elgstrand’s USDA map. Supporters of this map said it does a better job protecting the progressive voice and keeping neighborhood groups like Halcyon and Le Conte together. Some questioned the legitimacy of the public process surrounding the BSDC map.
“It has been divisive and built on lies and misinformation,” said one student, Matthew Lewis, who said he is involved with the Residence Hall Assembly, an organization representing Cal dorms. “It is not a good map. It divides students and it divides neighborhoods, and therefore it is bad for both.”
George Beier, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, said, in fact, the adopted BSDC map does a better job keeping Willard neighbors together in a single district. Beier — who ran against Worthington in District 7 in 2010 — also said he believed issues south of campus — related to crime, lighting and public safety — would be able to be addressed better under the BSDC map. Though he said he thought either map would be a step forward.
Most of the public speakers both Tuesday night and earlier this month told council they supported Elgstrand’s map, and some council members had expressed concern that a map meant to unify students was in fact dividing them. But Cal student Safeena Mecklai, ASUC external affairs vice president, told the council Tuesday that, despite the public testimony, the campus is “not particularly divided.”
“When the BSDC map passed, students were excited,” Mecklai said. “It’s a very small number of students who are supporting the referendum.”
The clock begins ticking Thursday, when the city clerk ratifies the council’s vote, for those who wish to pursue a referendum. They will have 30 days to collect 5,275 signatures to challenge the council’s decision. Some have noted that the group may face an uphill battle if students are the target audience, as many may be leaving for winter break when the semester ends Dec. 20.
If they succeed, the county registrar would need to verify the signatures, which could be relatively quick — if a random sample comes back as legitimate — or longer — if there are problems with the sample, which would trigger a more thorough examination.
Assuming the signatures are sufficient, the referendum would automatically suspend the council’s decision on the BSDC map, which would revert council boundaries to the existing districts. The council would then decide whether to revoke its vote, or put the issue to the voters. If the item goes onto the ballot, that could take place in June or November 2014, depending on how long the signature verification process takes.
According to Elgstrand, more information about the referendum effort will be forthcoming this week.
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