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.
“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.