June 1964 story reporting opening of Willard Swim Center. Courtesy Berkeley Public Library.

Robert Collier, co-chair of the Berkeley Pools Campaign, has analysed the results of the votes cast for and against Measure C, the failure of which led to yesterday’s closure of Willard Pool.

At 7:30 pm Wednesday, after exactly 46 years and four days of serving the children and adults of south Berkeley, Willard Pool closed for what may be the last time. Swimmers finished their final laps as the sun set westward. Lifeguards drew the covers and prepared to turn off the water pumps. A piece of Berkeley was lost.

The pool’s death was a chronicle long foretold. “Save Willard Pool” was one of the key slogans in the campaign for Measure C, the ballot measure in Berkeley’s June 8 election. Although Measure C would have benefited all four of Berkeley’s tattered municipal pools, the impact on Willard would have been immediate – if the measure won, the pool would have been repaired and kept open; if it lost, the pool would be permanently closed.

Some Measure C opponents claimed the closure threat was a mere bluff by scheming city officials. It wasn’t.

In the June 8 election, Measure C received 62.2 percent of the vote. This would have been a landslide victory in other elections, but because of the long legacy of Prop. 13, a minimum two-thirds voter support was required.

But Willard’s closure was also the result of a deep political split among Berkeley’s neighborhoods. A close look at the election’s precinct-by-precinct results, which were released Monday by the Alameda Country Registrar of Voters, shows that the city’s geographic dichotomy of liberal flats versus conservative hills has grown sharper in previous years. Voting patterns were affected by several factors — proximity to the pools, to be sure, but also elevation, income and other cultural differences.

Near Willard Pool, for example, support for Measure C was overwhelming, with precincts voting as high as 79.7 percent “yes” just west of Telegraph Avenue. Less than a mile uphill, however, the balance was reversed, with the “yes” vote as low as 43.6 percent in the wealthy areas around Tunnel Road.

Elsewhere in the city, divisions were similar. Precincts in North Berkeley varied by elevation – support above two-thirds in the lower areas, including a high of 71.6 percent near King School, but under 50 percent in high-elevation areas, with only 38.4 percent along Grizzly Peak Boulevard and 46.5 percent in the Thousand Oaks area around John Hinkel Park.

Measure C’s backbone of support, with “yes” percentages mostly in the 70s, stretched from Hopkins Street in the north, through the city’s central neighborhoods southward to San Pablo and Grove parks, and then curving east to Willard. Support was slightly less in the low flats west of San Pablo Avenue, with the “yes” vote averaging in the low to mid 60s.

In contrast, the spread was much closer for Measure FF, the $26 million library bond that eked out a victory in November 2008 with 68.1 percent of the vote. Its “yes” vote ranged from a low of 56 percent around Tunnel Road to a high of 77 percent near Ohlone Park.

Another key reason for Measure C’s defeat was low turnout. Citywide, voter participation was only 36.9 percent, markedly lower than the norm for November elections. Precincts with the highest turnout were in the hills and immediately south of Hopkins Street, where the participation reached 60.3 percent. In contrast, there was near-zero turnout from UC Berkeley students because the election occurred during summer vacation. Voter participation in precincts around campus ranged as low as 2.3 percent. Because students traditionally support liberal causes, including ballot measures for city facilities, this ultra-low student turnout meant the loss of thousands of votes for Measure C. In retrospect, the decision to schedule Measure C for a June primary rather than a November election was a fatal mistake.

Absentees accounted for 63.2 percent of the votes cast.

So what’s next? For Willard Pool swimmers and neighbors, it’s disappearance of their pool, perhaps forever. The Warm Pool also will disappear next year when its location at Berkeley High School is replaced by much-needed student facilities. At King Pool and West Campus Pool, no immediate changes in hours and programs are expected, although it’s impossible to predict whether the city’s worsening budget cuts may also cut into those pools’ hours and programs.

The Berkeley Pools Campaign, of which I am a co-chair, is currently discussing several alternatives with City Council members and others, possibly including another pools ballot measure in the November 2012 election. (Not November 2010, however, because the School District will have a bond measure and parcel tax on that ballot, and we don’t want to compete with them.)

The pools may be simply the canary in the coal mine. Berkeley is under severe pressure from the fiscal crisis that is sweeping nearly every other city in the Bay Area and California. Although the city’s bond rating is excellent, with an AA+ rating from Standard & Poors, the prospect of worsening budget cuts in Sacramento – and the recent failure of Congress to approve a $24 billion package of aid to the states – may force new budget cutbacks for many essential services, including the schools, unless city voters are willing to approve new taxes.

The budget crisis is no bluff. It is all too real. But also very real are apathy and narrow self-interest. Our challenge, individually and collectively, is to take the right decisions now to ensure that Berkeley’s high quality of life is not lost for future generations.

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