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City Council splits in redistricting struggle

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Tuesday October 23, 2001

The result of the recent redistricting brawl is a bitterly divided City Council, with one faction charging the other with gerrymandering and a group of citizens vowing to put a referendum on the March ballot to challenge the newly-approved districts. 

The dust hasn’t begun to settle and some residents are suddenly weighing the value of having council districts at all.  

“Council districts have been a mixed bag,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “In San Francisco they got rid of district elections and now they have them back again, which tells you there’s no Utopia either way.” 

Utopia is the last thing anyone would call the atmosphere on the City Council when “redistricting” is mentioned. The recent redistricting process, required by the City Charter every 10 years after the release of the census data, has council moderates stepping up the usual bitter council debate by charging the progressives, who hold a one-person majority on the council, with taking advantage of a census undercount to gerrymander districts that favor progressives and weaken moderates. 

Progressives have fought back equally as hard saying moderates know the approved district plan best fits the City Charter requirements and that moderate charges are sour grapes and little more than negative campaign sound bites meant for next year’s mayoral election. 

Furthermore, a newly formed political action group, Citizens for Fair Representation, announced the launch of a petition drive last week to put a referendum on the March ballot to reverse the districts approved by 5-4 City Council vote on Oct. 2. 

There was a time 15 years ago when there were no districts in Berkeley and the council had to find other things to fight over. 

According to former Councilmember Nancy Skinner, who opposed district elections when they were on the ballot in 1986, residents had become disenchanted with citywide council elections in 1982 when city election day was switched from April to November. 

She said November elections resulted in 20,000 more register voters participating in city elections than in the April elections. 

The higher turnout resulted in a more left-leaning council. In fact, according to Olds, there were eight Berkeley Citizens Action (progressive) councilmembers to just one Berkeley Democratic Club (moderate) Councilmember. 

“Barbara Lashley was the only moderate on the council then,” Olds said. “Despite being outnumbered she still went to all the meetings. I don’t know why.”  

There was a strong feeling that the two political factions were too powerful and that only those who were connected with the political machine could run for the City Council, according to former Councilmember Carla Woodworth, who was then chair of the Progressive Coalition for District Elections. 

“We had an at-large system and there was a hue and cry from some neighborhoods that they weren’t being represented,” Woodworth said. “The idea was that districts would make it less expensive to run for the council and that would result in more people running, which would be more democratic.” 

The arguments supporting council districts on the June 1986 ballot included an end to party politics, council representatives more responsive to neighborhood issues and greater participation by grassroots activists who might want to run for office. 

Opponents argued that district elections would be more expensive because of a provision that when there was no clear winner in a particular district, there would be a run off. They further argued that the measure was a thinly-veiled attempt to thwart the voters’ will by unseating progressives and that minorities would lose representation on the council. 

“It turned out to be true that the number of African-Americans on the council dropped after the districts were approved,” said former Councilmember Skinner, “Before there were always three or four (African-Americans) and since there has not been more than two.” 

Skinner added that despite a the surface arguments that appeared in the 1986 sample ballot, there was another factor driving proponents of council districts.  

She said there was great deal of worry in some neighborhoods about a popular low-income housing program known as “scattered sites.” The program would choose various locations around the city to build a series of small developments, six to 10 units, instead of concentrating low-income housing in a larger development of 30 or more units. 

“Some neighborhood groups were worried about these projects cropping up in their particular communities and thought council districts would give them a better chance of fighting them.” she said. 

Councilmember Polly Armstrong said she was a big supporter of districts in the beginning but now has mixed feelings.  

“It was great that neighbors had someone to make sure the potholes were fixed, the trees were trimmed and the streets were safer,” She said. “But I’m afraid that little groups within certain districts have aggregated too much power and councilmembers are sort of required to dance on the head of a pin for a vocal minority.” 

Councilmember Miriam Hawley said she thought the council districts could use some tweaking. She said some councilmembers get so involved with the issues in their districts that they lose sight of what’s good for city at large.  

“Residents have more clout with a single council person and I don’t think anyone really wants to get rid of the districts,” she said, “but voters might be willing to make some changes.” 

Hawley suggested that reducing the number of districts to five and having three councilmembers elected at large would assure a broader perspective on city issues.  

Former Councilmember Woodworth agreed. She said one of the larger citywide issues that residents lost interest in after the districts went into effect was the Telegraph Avenue and Downtown districts. 

“These are areas that generate millions in city revenue every year and there had always been a citywide concern about the health of those areas,” she said. “But after the city was divided into districts people who didn’t live in those areas were no longer interested.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington who represents the Telegraph Avenue area and beat Woodworth in a run-off election in December 1996, said he is more effective as a district councilmember because he can focus on his district’s needs while still paying attention to larger citywide issues.  

“Segmenting the city into eight council districts makes the load for each councilmember more manageable,” he said. “I spend most of my time on issues in my district, but I’m also very involved in citywide issues such as transportation and pedestrian safety.” 

While there is disagreement about the value of council districts as they currently exist and the brouhaha over the recently-approved district boundaries is ongoing, no one has heard of a serious movement to go back to citywide elections. 

“You hear people questioning the districts once in a while but I haven’t heard anyone who is motivated enough to go out and start collecting signatures,” Olds said. “It would take an extreme situation for the city to go back to citywide elections.”