One Man, 2/3rds Vote 

The moderate minority attempt to overturn Berkeley's gerrymandered council districts

The manager of Andronico's Shattuck Avenue store had finally had enough of the petitioners and counterpetitioners. After hours of noisy verbal altercations and complaints from each side about the other, she told everyone to pack up their pens, papers, and clipboards and get off the property. Among those given the boot two Sundays ago were Berkeley councilmembers from opposing factions: Dona Spring, a progressive recently in the news for championing a resolution condemning the bombing of Afghanistan, and Miriam Hawley, a moderate by Berkeley measurements.

Hawley went to Andronico's to do some grocery shopping, but once she got there she became more interested in events outside the store. Hawley says Spring and her companions were interfering with volunteers collecting signatures to force a referendum on the city's recently approved redistricting plan. "They would plant themselves right in front of the petition-gatherers," Hawley groused. "For them to be out there doing that was beyond belief." Hawley marched up to Spring and barked, "What are you afraid of -- that your plan will see the light of day?"

Spring said she was defending the redistricting plan against the "lies and distortions" being spread by Citizens for Fair Representation, a newly-formed committee led by Hawley's appointee to the Planning Commission, David Tabb. The group's literature accuses Spring and her progressive council allies of cutting a backroom deal that undermines the principle of "one person, one vote." By a 5-4 majority, council progressives recently shoehorned 17,000 residents into council District 8, the historically moderate Claremont and Elmwood stronghold represented by Polly Armstrong. That made her district significantly larger than the city's seven other council districts, each of which contains approximately 12,850 people. The bulk of those extra voters just happened to be students at the University of California, who tend to vote for Armstrong's progressive opponents. During the melee in the Andronico's parking lot, Spring distributed a flier that provocatively questioned the motives of her opponents: "Why is the minority on the City Council sore losers about this redistricting plan? Moderates like Councilmember Armstrong do not want students and tenants in their district."

In reaction to the plan, leaders of Citizens for Fair Representation say they already have exceeded the 4,088 signatures necessary to put the redistricting plan on the March ballot. At stake is nothing less than the political balance of Berkeley for the next decade, which helps to explain why a couple of grown women allowed themselves to get kicked out of Andronico's over some squiggly lines on a map. Dissatisfaction over redistricting could have even larger ramifications for Berkeley's city government. The process has some political leaders asking whether the city should revert to at-large council elections. Surprisingly, these questioners include Mayor Shirley Dean, a prominent former backer of district elections.

Berkeley's charter requires the council to redraw the city's eight council district boundaries every ten years after the new census. The idea is to adjust for population shifts and allot every district a roughly equal number of residents. But the latest census count had a fatal flaw: It failed to tally as many as 6,000 Berkeley residents. While the general consensus is that Berkeley gained thousands of residents during the 1990s, according to the official count the city's population increased by just 19 people. Most of these overlooked residents lived in the student-heavy south campus areas of District 7 and District 8. For instance, Census 2000 showed only one person living in the Unit 2 Residential Complex on Haste Street, while the 1990 Census turned up 1,070 residents. But while even the progressives concede that the official count is wrong, the charter requires the council to rely on the census when redrawing district lines.

Thus, one or more council incumbents was destined to get stuck with thousands of phantom voters. Under the council's plan, Polly Armstrong was the lucky winner of most of the "nonexistent" voters. "What they did with their eyes wide open was create a district with 17,000 people, while every other district has 12,000 people," said Armstrong, part of the council's four-member moderate minority. "That's like saying that the votes of District 8 residents only count as two-thirds of a vote."

It's a political axiom that members of the political minority usually get screwed by redistricting, while those in the majority get to protect their fiefdoms. Armstrong and Dean accuse the progressive majority of fudging the lines to protect District 7 incumbent Kriss Worthington -- a 48-year-old who has won handily in student precincts but isn't a student himself -- from having to face a credible student challenger in the next election. Worthington counters that the plan he voted for created two districts -- including his own -- in which more than half of the population is between 18 and 24 years old. Worthington's appointee to the planning commission, Rob Wrenn, dismisses criticism of the plan as envy. "If the moderates had had the votes, they would have done maximum damage to Kriss," Wrenn said.

Indeed, the redistricting proposal put forth by Mary Ann McCamant, Armstrong's appointee to the planning commission, stuck Worthington with the undercounted dorm residents. McCamant's plan also put the Bateman neighborhood -- a Worthington stronghold -- into Armstrong's district. Wrenn jokingly described McCamant's plan as "The Polly Armstrong Safe Seat Plan."

But critics of the new district map aren't just upset about alleged gerrymandering. They're also disturbed by the secretive process by which it was drawn up and approved. Dean and her moderate allies say they never saw the final version of the district map before the evening of the meeting at which it was approved. "It smacks of a backroom deal," Dean said. The mayor was so miffed, in fact, that she even has suggested returning to at-large elections for city councilmembers. "I think hearings would be appropriate," she explains. "I just want to know: Is this what people want?"

For Dean to float the idea of ditching district elections represents a huge personal turnabout. After all, Dean was a major champion of Measure C, the 1986 initiative that created district elections in Berkeley. Back then, she and others viewed district elections as a way to get rid of slate politics, which were dominated by the leftist coalition, Berkeley Citizens Action. At the time, BCA held an 8-1 majority on the council. District elections did effectively dismantle BCA, but they also locked in a progressive majority of councilmembers elected from flatland districts. Consequently, Dean has governed without a working majority except in 1995 and 1996, her first two years as mayor. And the new redistricting plan could increase her opponent's council majority to 6-3, by converting District 8 into a left-leaning district.

So it's more than slightly ironic that returning to citywide council elections might now favor more conservative candidates by allowing them to receive support from hills voters. The city's demographic landscape has shifted in a more conservative direction in the past twenty years. In 1980, renters, who tend to vote for progressive candidates, made up 63 percent of Berkeley households; in 2000, they made up just more than 57 percent. "If I were a moderate," Wrenn mused, "I'd favor going back to at-large elections because they've been doing better in citywide elections." Worthington believes that's Dean's goal. "She has won citywide twice so presumably she thinks, 'If I can win citywide maybe people like me can ride my coattails.'"

But dismantling district elections is only an idea for now. In the short term, Dean has proposed a charter amendment to delay redrawing the council districts until the census corrects its numbers. But there's no guarantee the government will alter its tally. Berkeley and other cities sued to adjust the census numbers, but the city lost in a trial court decision earlier this year. City officials have appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and are awaiting a ruling. In the meantime, the city needs to submit its new boundaries to the county registrar of voters by April 1 in order for the lines to be in place for the November general election next year.

And then, of course, there's the referendum. At press time, referendum organizer David Tabb said volunteers had collected more than 7,000 signatures to submit to the city clerk before the Nov. 15 deadline. Once the clerk verifies the signatures as valid, the council either can rescind its redistricting plan or put it on the March ballot. Should voters reject the plan, the council would have to come up with a new proposal. However, City Clerk Sherry Kelly doubts the council could agree on a new redistricting plan before the registrar's April 1 deadline. In that case, she said, the city would have to use the boundaries in place for the past decade.

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