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Berkeley City Council’s historic offer: Take a seat, Cal

August 22, 2013
by Glen Martin

Berkeley is about to become the nation’s first.

Yes, other cities have toyed with the idea of creating a student-centric city council district—most notably Burlington, Vermont, home of the University of Vermont (and perhaps not incidentally, the jam band Phish). But Berkeley City Council is actually doing it, having given preliminary approval to a redistricting map that contains the nation’s first city council district specifically drawn to assure a “super-majority” of college students. Final approval is expected Sept. 10.

If all goes as planned, 86 percent of the new District 7 will consist of 12,000 students—one of whom seems virtually certain to win a seat on the city council. 

Cal students have been fighting for such representation since the mid-1980s, contending that Berkeley students need someone on the city council looking out for their particular interests and concerns. 

Previous efforts had foundered here, just as they had elsewhere. (Burlington, for example, gave up the idea after sitting council members objected that students were transient, didn’t own property, and didn’t really understand municipal politics—and after not a single student showed up at a public meeting to discuss it.) But Berkeley being Berkeley, its students were more engaged and persistent, particularly following last year’s passage of Measure R, a student government-sponsored city initiative empowering the council to redraw district maps.

Media-savvy organizers of the Berkeley Student District Campaign took to Facebook and other traditional and social media to recruit student supporters.

“Have you ever wondered how to find more affordable student housing or make a complaint to your elected official in Berkeley?” organizers Shahryar Abbasi, Noah Efron and Michael Manset asked in a Daily Californian op-ed this past April. “What if you ran into your city council member in Wheeler Auditorium as you headed into class? It would make it much easier to remind the council member about those burned out street lights that make walking home risky.” 

So this is the kind of feel-good story that leaves everyone brimming with endorphins – unless you’re the sitting council member in jeopardy of losing your seat to the new student district, in which case you may feel anxious about losing your job.

Indeed, the area’s current councilman, Kriss Worthington, has been portrayed in some local media as nonplussed by the prospect of having to voluntarily leave office or face possible defeat in a 2014 election if the new district is approved. Worthington was quoted as declaring he would step down only if he thinks any of the expected student candidates are fully qualified.

 “I’m not concerned about losing my job,” Worthington insisted to us. Instead he says his concern is that the proposal is “a gerrymandered, warped version of what a student district should look like. It left out most of the dorms and co-ops, and most of the northside student tenants. Instead of concentrating on the zone right around campus, it incorporated areas seven or eight blocks away, where most of the fraternities and sororities are.”

Worthington, a staunch progressive who has long served on the council, refused to characterize Greeks as conservative, but said they did tend to cultivate more “moderate” politics than students who lived closer to campus. “The people that put this (map) together came from a particular political perspective,” Worthington said.  “It’s one-sided, and they hope to elect someone from their faction.  We need a student district that reflects the diversity and interests of the entire student community, not just a narrow constituency.”

But others feel redistricting is a lot like diplomacy: It’s the art of the possible.

“We started this project more than two years ago,” Safeena Mecklai, the vice president of the Associated Students of the University of California and the head of the Berkeley Student District Campaign, told us. “The original proposed map included the co-ops and the north side residences.  But we needed the support of the city council and the community to get this thing through, and candidly, they weren’t supportive of the first map. There were fears that students wouldn’t be sufficiently committed to city government.”

 Mecklai said redistricting advocates had to do a lot of outreach to garner sufficient support.

“We got students appointed to city commissions and internships,” she said. “We worked with city council members to come up with a map they could live with.  And it paid off – when Measure R came up for a vote, it passed by majorities in every district.” 

 As to Worthington’s concerns, said Mecklai, “I can’t really say what his motivations are.  But I do think that if you’re pushing for, say, inclusion of the northside residences, you should be a student living in the northside.”

A final note: Assuming a UC student is elected from District 7, the victor will not be the first student to serve on the Berkeley council. That distinction belongs to Nancy Skinner, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Natural Resources and a master’s from the School of Education, and today is a member of the California Assembly. While a UC student, she won a city council seat in 1984 and served until 1992, pushing for Berkeley be the first city in the nation to set a 50 percent recycling goal and ban Styrofoam at fast-food outlets.

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