A Student Ghetto District for Berkeley Would Weaken Student Power

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday July 13, 2011 - 11:07:00 AM

While I was trying to get last week’s issue out from an undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the midst of techno-hell caused by ATT’s simultaneously failing voice and data lines, I got a call from a reporter who was doing a story for another publication, asking me if I had any position on a move to create a special Berkeley City Council district just for students. I told him, somewhat peremptorily, that I had no opinion on the topic, which I didn’t at the time, being busy with other problems.

Afterwards, though, I wondered what was up, and when I got back to what passes for civilization I checked the Daily Cal.

Reading a comprehensive story by student reporter Anjuli Sastry, this is what I learned: 

“In an attempt to gain a stronger student presence on the Berkeley City Council by allowing for the creation of a student council member, the ASUC has asked the council to extend the deadline for public redistricting proposal submissions in a letter dated July 5. “Following a series of letters from the ASUC Office of External Affairs to the council, the office requested that the council push the deadline to Nov. 1 to provide enough time to create a proposal for a super-majority student district wherein students can elect their own student representative.”  

Something about the story seemed familiar, so I checked the Planet archives. In fact, our reporter had covered a similar push way back in 2006, when many of today’s students were still in junior high. 

At that time, during a city council race aimed at unseating Councilmember Kriss Worthington, perpetual District 7 challenger George Beier, as part of a campaign which included Telegraph Avenue beer parties and other stunts designed to appeal to his vision of student concerns, was promoting the establishment of just such a district: 

“A large map depicting the proposal decorates the Telegraph Avenue door of the campaign office Beier shares with District 8 Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who is running for re-election. It includes comments suggesting that the current district lines have deliberately disenfranchised students. ‘The students have no voice,’ Beier told the Planet. ‘If that were any other minority in town, we would be taking steps to correct that problem.’ “
Pardon my cynicism, but Oh Sure. 

All along, Wozniak has been a big backer of an all-student district. 

In 2006: 

“Crediting Beier for the plan, which he calls a ‘good idea,’ District 8 Councilmember Gordon Wozniak says it will benefit District 8 by creating a district in which the population is more homogenous by age, eliminating a large percentage of the students and gaining more long-term residents. Wozniak won his council seat four years ago in a run-off with then-student Andy Katz, who garnered 41 percent of the vote. “
In 2011: 

“The districts have been prone to spread students over several districts, and in fact, you dilute their impact,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “There should be enough time for students to engage among themselves and take control of their impact on politics.”
Dilute their impact, or spread their impact? In fact, Wozniak and many of his constituents in District 8 (full disclosure: I live there) would like nothing better than to get those pesky students out of their elections and into the student ghetto where they belong. As it stands now, students have a controlling voice in at least two districts, and a significant voice in at least three others. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who cut his political teeth as a student activist, was able to get elected in District 4 largely because of strong student support, and he’s very aware of it. 

From the 2006 article: 

“Rent Board member and student Jesse Arreguin opposes the creation of a student district, which he calls a “student ghetto.” The district could allow the other councilmembers to get away with ignoring student needs by saying the representative of the student district would take care of them, he said.”
And now he’s on the Council. 

The current City Council majority, controlled by Mayor Tom Bates, fielded candidates against dissident progressives, both Arreguin and District 7 Councilmember Kriss Worthington, but their picks lost because of vigorous student participation in those elections. Ranked choice voting has further strengthened student power in the several districts which have significant numbers of student voters. 

Kriss Worthington explained to the Daily Cal reporter that creating a student district would require placing a charter amendment on the ballot: 

“The city council can’t take half of one district and half of another district and put it together — they are not legally allowed to do that, but voters can do that,” Worthington said. “In the short term, we are trying to figure out how to keep or expand student majority in District 7. In the longer term it’s about how you put something on the ballot that can win.”
Then-City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque laid out the rules in a 2001 memo quoted in the 2006 Planet story: 

“The complex nature of carving out a student district was expressed in an Aug. 16, 2001 memo written by City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque in response to a similarly radically redrawn district proposed by students in 2001.
“The City Charter requires that the council districts be as nearly equal in population as possible, and that any redistricting ‘shall preserve, to the extent possible, the council districts originally established herein,’ ” she wrote, indicating that the 2001 effort to significantly redraw the boundaries by ordinance was illegal.”
If students want a unique voice on the Berkeley City Council, there’s a better way to do it. In today’s housing market, students are dispersed all over Berkeley. The last time a student was elected to the council was in 1984, when all candidates ran at large before district elections were adopted in 1986. That was Nancy Skinner, now representing Berkeley in the state Assembly. 

District elections have their virtues, notably requiring district councilmembers to be much more accountable to the voters than those elected at large ever were. But they are tempted to be parochial—it’s hard for councilmembers from the hills to understand the concerns of citizens who live in the flats, let alone those of students. 

The only councilmember elected at large is currently the mayor, who has few executive powers but a lot of unearned clout because he or she is elected citywide. Rather that constructing an artificial student ghetto district, which would really represent mainly students living in group housing near campus, it would be better to add a couple of additional at-large seats to the council. That way students who live everywhere from Fraternity Row to West Berkeley could aggregate their voting power behind student candidates who would be responsible for representing all students no matter where they live. 

It wouldn’t be necessary (and might even be illegal) to designate one of those seats just for a student, because they were about a quarter in Berkeley’s population in the last census, according to the Daily Cal story. With ranked choice voting, electing one or two students at large should be fairly easy, and a lot more satisfactory than shoving the majority of student voters into a single district.