Study: City commissions don’t reflect Berkeley’s diversity

Ethnic breakdown of city residents and commission members, according to Student Diversity Report

Berkeley’s city commissions are overwhelmingly white and do not reflect the city’s ethnic makeup, a new study by a group of UC Berkeley students has determined.

While 55% of Berkeley’s 112,000 residents are Caucasian, whites make up 59% of the appointees to the city’s 35+ commissions, according to the study, which will be released at a press conference today.

Asian and Pacific Islanders make up 19% of the city’s population, yet that group only holds 7% of the commission seats. African-Americans, who make up 10% of Berkeley, hold 7% of the seats. Latinos, who make up 11% of the city, hold just 4% of the commission seats. Students, who make up about 20%-25% of Berkeley, are also under-represented, holding 11% of the spots, according to the study.

Sydney Fang: "under-representation of people of color and students"

“There is a huge disparity and under-representation of people of color and students,” said Sydney Fang, a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley and the co-author of the study. She is also running for vice-president of external affairs at UC Berkeley’s student senate. “It’s really a shame.”

The numbers are similar, if a bit better, than a similar diversity study that was done in 2005.

Each city councilmember and the mayor get to make 34 commission appointments to boards as varied as the Peace & Justice Commission, Medical Cannabis, the Zoning Appeals Board, the Commission on the Status of Women, and many more. According to the study, four city councilmembers have failed to appoint any Latinos and three have failed to appoint any African-Americans.

“It’s really shocking and we are concerned about it,” said Alice Lin, a first-year student at Cal and a co-author of the study.

Lin conceded, however, that the study may not be entirely accurate. Commission candidates are asked to check off a box declaring their ethnicity, but it is not mandatory to do so, she said. So the percentage of each ethnic group represented may not be entirely correct, but the overall picture is the same, she said.

City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, one of the three council members whom the study said has not appointed any African Americans or Latinos, said that this “is a complicated issue.” When he looks to fill a commission seat, he looks for people who have expertise in the area the commission covers. He doesn’t impose an ideological litmus test, he said. And he prefers to get referrals from other appointees or colleagues about possible commissioners rather that putting out a broad call for applicants.

Also, should councilmembers appoint commissioners who reflect the entire city or just their district, asked Capitelli. He also questioned the study’s methodology. Sometimes a member will appoint one ethnic minority to two or three commissions and each appointment is counted separately, he said.

“It is an issue people are conscious of and try to bring balance to,” said Capitelli. “It can be difficult.”

Susan Wengraf, Gordon Wozniak, and Darryl Moore were other city councilmembers who the study said had not appointed commissioners of a particular race.

Anna Avellar, Wengraf’s legislative aide, said the study is not entirely correct. Wengraf has appointed three or four commissioner who were biracial, she said. She has also appointed a student. Sometimes the commissioner do not last long on the various boards, though, she said.

The students gathered the information by pouring over commission application forms in the City Clerk’s office.

The point of the study is to encourage the city to do a better job of reaching out to under-represented groups to encourage them to apply for spots on the commissions, said Lin. Currently, there are 58 vacancies on various commissions, but that information is difficult to find on the city website, she said.

“People don’t usually know they are there,” said Lin. “They are on an obscure page.”

Fang said she hopes the community can work with the council to help publicize openings, reach out to groups who might have some potential candidates, and connect with students to encourage them to apply.

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  • Anyresident

    The bigger question as I stated above is what % of the applicants are white, Asian, African American, Islanders, etc.  If in fact it is a much lower % of the applicants that are minorities, this entire excersize is without merit.

  • Anna Avellar

    Every Councilmember has their aide sitting on at least one commission.  Do you think there are people lined up to volunteer for any commission, think again.  For your information Anna was appointed to the Animal Care Commission by Gordon Wozniak.  This is the problem with blogs, people say anything they want to without being accountable.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a useful heuristic to assume that anyone who presents their data with a pie chart (or any other method that sneaks in a dimension not present in the data) either has no idea what they are doing or does know and is intentionally trying to mislead you.

  • So whites are 55% of the population but hold 59% of the seats….what a shockingly gross overrepresentation!   
    Afro-Americans are 10% of the population but only hold 7%…what a shockingly gross underrepresentation!
    Other thoughts: perhaps students are underrepresented because many consider themselves passing through and just don’t want to take time out from studying to bother with, say,  zoning.   Or have any relevant real-world expertise.

    In the case of Latinos, one reason for underrepresentation is that generally public officials should have a legal right to be in the country being governed.

    The real problem is that about half of these commissions, which do cost money, don’t really do any useful function other than providing a venue for activist theatrics.


  • Petsitter101

    I appreciate the correction.  I was wrong to assume it was Susan to appoint you.  But read my comment again about the part where I said it DIDN”T look like people were lined up to be on the ACC.  I can imagine it is the same for other commissions.  No need for me to think again.
    This article has brought out more comments from city council members, and aids than I can remember for awhile.  I think it is a good thing to get their perspective.

  • Petsitter101

    TYPO= aides, not aids.  My bad

  • Petsitter101

    News is in the eye of the beholder.  Why do you bother reading if you don’t think it’s worthy?

  • bgal4

     Should read racial diversity,  diversity is a broader concept.

    Berkeley is focused on expanding bureaucracy, not improving it.  Many of the commissions should be combined or dismantled all together.

  • John Holland

    I disagree. I think some pie charts can present data in a very straightforward fashion. Here’s what I consider to be a great pie chart.

  • The Sharkey

    “Toothless” seems pretty self explanatory, but I’m curious about the “corrupt” allegation as well. Perhaps he’s referring to some of the shenanigans surrounding the Zoning Adjustments Board?

  • joan strand

     picky picky

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Toothless intrigued me because I envisioned some commission work product that called for specific action and was then ignored. That would mean either that te commission was frivolous (and should be eliminated) or that the Council/Bureaucracy don’t feel accountability to the commissions they form (and should be scrutinized accordingly). You’re right that corrupt is more consequential – boondoggles? Lawbreaking?

    C’mon Tom, let’s have the specifics!

  • The Sharkey

    Good luck. I’m also very interested in what he has to say about this since he knows more about local politics than I do, but getting straight answers from him can be like pulling teeth sometimes.

  • Heather_W_62

    It occurs me to that anyone who is interested in applying for one of these positions should be on the email list of their area City Counsel representative… and those C.C. reps should be sending out invitations to apply, as Linda Maio did recently with the PRC (though I didn’t get appointed, to my disappointment. Pun intended.)

  • Heather_W_62

    I’ve applied to those I’ve been aware of, but haven’t been appointed. If I’d know the ACC was looking for applications, I’d have submitted…. Personally, I think aides to the City Council should be exempt from these commissions. 

  • Heather_W_62

    Pie Charts and Statistical spreadsheets = undergrad project. 

  • The real diversity problem in Berkeley is the overrepresentation of Asians/Pacific Islanders in the UC student body.   Then there’s the Cal football and basketball teams.   Since America is 70% white and 90% not-black there are clearly some adjustments that need to be made.