Redistricting in Berkeley will be deferred to 2013 after a 7-2 vote by the City Council last night. In the same vote, the Council agreed to draft an amendment to the City Charter which would allow for redistricting that could deviate from the 1986 boundaries.
“It seems to me to be completely outdated and counterproductive having to stick to 1986 lines,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “Redistricting should be about fairness, not about perpetuating the political career of any person.”
The 1986 measure that created Berkeley’s districts — and the amended city charter that resulted — has three requirements: no boundary changes can unseat an existing councilmember, the boundaries need to adhere as closely as possible to the 1986 boundaries, and the districts should be equal in population. The Council will place an amendment on this November’s ballot to eliminate what many members saw as unfair requirements.
Much of the impetus for the deferment of redistricting and a potential charter amendment has come from a group of UC Berkeley students, who have been agitating for at least one student majority district in the city. The 1986 requirements made that a difficult task. The student redistricting proposal, presented by ASUC vice president Joey Freeman, was non-compliant.
Six redistricting proposals were presented to the Council that were compliant with the 1986 requirements.
Bates and councilmembers Max Anderson and Linda Maio all said last night that the 1986 boundaries had been drawn with the explicit aim of splitting the student vote in the city. Anderson also said that the 1986 boundaries had intentionally weakened the city’s African American vote.
A statement from Berkeley Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, read to the Council last night, echoed that view. “It is a fact that the Berkeley population is changing,” Skinner’s statement said. “It doesn’t make sense to stick to lines that were inequitably drawn a quarter of a century ago.”
Some councilmembers, however, protested that the decision to defer redistricting would “disenfranchise” thousands of Berkeley voters.
“For us not to choose one of the six alternatives is for us to be negligent in our jobs. Inaction is actually maintaining those boundaries,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “This is the most undemocratic thing that has happened at this City Council in at least a decade.”
Worthington and Councilmember Jesse Arreguín pointed out that a number — the exact numbers were disputed throughout the debate — of voters would go through a cycle of council elections without having a vote. Other councilmembers said that was an inevitable consequence of redistricting when you have staggered elections. Other voters, Councilmember Susan Wengraf said, would vote twice.
A heated debate emerged on whether this constituted disenfranchisement or “deferment”, in Wengraf’s phrase.
“Whatever the council elects to do, no one will be disenfranchised in the process,” said Sherry Smith, president of the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, during the public comment preceding the Council discussion.
“In the process of delaying redistricting people who would be moved into new districts can’t vote in those districts,” Arreguín said. “Whether you call that disenfranchisement or not, they can’t vote in the city council election.”
Councilmember Darryl Moore countered the charges of disenfranchisement by recalling the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s, commemorated this week on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: “Let’s not cheapen the word disenfranchisement, because people lost their lives because of it,” he said.
Under the student proposal, two student majority districts would be created — largely at the expense of the districts currently represented by Arreguín and Worthington. In response to a question from Arreguín, Freeman denied last night that it was the intention of the plans to unseat the two councilmembers seen as the progressives on the City Council.
“We hope both of you will continue to be champions of students, and we’re creating conditions under which we’ll always have champions of students,” Freeman said.
The charter-compliant redistricting proposals that received most praise from councilmembers during the debate were two that had been prepared by Eric Panzer, who works for a planning firm in Berkeley. But Panzer said he was delighted the Council had decided to pursue charter amendment.
“I’m thrilled that Council has deferred redistricting and expressed its strong support for removing the strictures of the 1986 district boundaries,” Panzer said. “I’ve striven to create fairer districts in my proposals, and I’d be delighted to have greater flexibility to that end. It may take a great deal more work, but in the end, I hope we can establish districts more reflective of Berkeley’s contemporary needs and constituencies.”