Will a student ever sit on Berkeley City Council again?

In the 15 years since Berkeley adopted City Council districts, no student has been elected to the post even though they make up a quarter of the population.

Now a coalition of UC Berkeley student leaders is aiming to change that.

The group hopes to put forward a plan that will reconfigure two City Council districts to make one with a super-majority of students. If that doesn’t work, the leaders may try and put a referendum before Berkeley voters to create a student-dominated district.

“Is this fair to the community?” said Joey Freeman, who as vice-president of external affairs for the Associated Students of the University of California is leading the redistricting effort. “You can make a very good argument there should be someone on the council representing the student interests.”

The catalyst to reconsider this question is the 2010 census. Law requires that the boundaries of all political seats be updated every ten years to reflect population changes. Berkeley’s population increased 9% between 2000 and 2010, going from 102,744 residents to 112,580.

The Berkeley city charter requires there be an equal distribution of residents in each of the city’s eight City Council districts. So the boundaries must be redrawn to put 14,703 residents in each district, up from 12,843. The city has set a September 16th deadline to receive new plans, but Councilmember Gordon Wozniak has an item on the July 19th agenda to extend this deadline to November 1. The City Council had already extended the deadline about a month. (Click here to see materials on how to present a new redistricting plan.)

Freeman and others want to use this opportunity to create a student-dominated district, but they are facing significant obstacles. Berkeley’s charter requires all new redistricting plans to comply with three criteria: no change in boundaries can lead to the ousting of a sitting council member; districts shall be equal in size; and new districts shall adhere as closely as possible to the original districts drawn up in 1986.

So the students are faced with a conundrum: if they submit a plan that creates a district with a supermajority of students, it won’t adhere closely to the original 1986 boundaries and will most likely be rejected. (This is what happened in 2002; the Berkeley City Attorney said an ASUC plan was not compliant with the law.) But if they decide to first push for a city charter referendum to allow for a new district, it won’t go on the ballot until the November 2012 election. And the City Council has established a timetable that calls for Berkeley to adopt new council districts by April 2012.

“Students make up one-quarter of Berkeley’s population,” said Kristin Hunziker, a 2009 Cal graduate who was active in Cal Democrats. She is now a political consultant and managed Wozniak’s 2010 re-election campaign. “Berkeley is a university town. We have a lot of university students. They should have representation on city government. There has only been one student who has served on the Berkeley City Council [Nancy Skinner, who was elected in 1984 before there were districts]. There should be more.”

While students live in large numbers in four city council districts, those represented by Wozniak (District 8) and Kriss Worthington (District 7) would be most affected by the students’ plan. But the two councilmen have different approaches about how to solve the situation.

Gordon Wozniak

Wozniak wants to slow the process down to give the students more time to come up with a redistricting plan. Since most Cal students won’t return from vacation until late August, the city’s current September 16th deadline to submit a new plan won’t give them a chance to confer. That’s why he is proposing the deadline be moved to November 1, even though city staff has said that will not give the city enough time to create new districts in time for the November 2012 election. Wozniak thinks that is fine; the new districts can be in place for the 2014 election.

“You have a district plan that makes it almost impossible to elect a student because they are spread over four districts,” said Wozniak. “I think it would be good if there was an active student on the council.”

Many of the students at Cal are of Asian heritage, and a student-dominated district might also bring that diversity to the council, he pointed out.

Worthington is opposed to deciding the matter through the city charter first, and then adjusting the city council district boundaries. If it is done in that order, then some voters who would have been moved into new districts because of population changes in time for the November 2012 elections, won’t get to vote for those running for council in Districts 2, 3, 5, and 6.

Kriss Worthington

“If a delay means we are not going to do redistricting in 2012, I think that’s gravely undemocratic,” said Worthington.

He said he would support a city charter referendum to create a student-dominated district since it would give voters a chance to decide the issue. He just thinks the referendum should be done after redistricting is completed.

Worthington said Wozniak might benefit politically if there was a student-dominated district. Any major redrawing of district lines would probably shift the students out of District 8 and into District 7. That would make Wozniak’s district more politically moderate, which might help him in future elections.

“It would allow Gordon to dump all the young people out of his district,” said Worthington.  “The students tend to vote more liberally than his district.”

Conversely, Worthington would be the city council member most likely to face a challenge from a student.

In the meantime, the Cal coalition is soliciting support for its plans. Skinner, the only UC student to be elected to the council, is behind them, said Freeman.

“Nancy is supportive of extending the deadline and creating a district with a supermajority of students,” said Freeman.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...