A newly-formed political action group held a press conference on the steps of Old City Hall Thursday to announce a petition drive to overturn the recently-approved council district lines, which they said were gerrymandered.
Citizens for Fair Representation, accompanied by moderates Mayor Shirley Dean and Councilmember Miriam Hawley, charged council progressives with fashioning the new boundary lines in a back room with the intention of weakening the political power of moderate Councilmember Polly Armstrong in District 8 and strengthening that of progressive Councilmember Kriss Worthington in District 7.
“We’re a grassroots organization that has formed to put a referendum on the March 3 ballot that will overturn the approved district plan, which is little more than a power grab by the far left,” said David Tabb, chairman of the newly-formed CFR.
Tabb is also Hawley’s appointee to the Planning Commission.
Progressive Councilmember Dona Spring, who attended the press conference, said there is “absolutely no truth” to moderate charges. She said it appeared the press conference was just another opportunity for the same kind of moderate grandstanding that has attended recent council debates.
“We had two public hearings on the new districts and they were debated again and again,” she said. “There was no ‘back room deal’ and the mayor knows it.”
According to the city clerk, the CFR will have to collect 4,000 authentic signatures by Nov. 15 in order to have the referendum put on the March ballot.
The controversial redistricting plan was drafted by Berkeley residents Michael O’Malley and David Blake, a former aide to progressive Councilmember Linda Maio. Progressives said they approved the plan, from a field of six others, because it best fit City Charter requirements.
The charter requires district boundary lines to be redrawn every 10 years, according to population data in the decennial census. The charter also states that redrawn districts must deviate as little as possible from the original districts, which were approved in 1986.
Making matters worse, the Federal Census Bureau blundered by not counting approximately 4,500 Berkeley residents, mostly students in districts 6, 7 and 8.
Because the charter requires the district lines be drawn according to the census – whether it has a colossal error or not – the approved district lines resulted in a population imbalance in District 8.
So, according to the census, each new district has close to 12,800 people. But according to the 1990 Census, there are 17,000 people in District 8 and close to 12,800 in each of the other eight districts.
Moderates contend the estimated 4,500 uncounted students that are now in District 8 are more inclined to vote for progressive candidates, which they say would lessen the moderate Armstrong’s chances of re-election in that district next year.
Census officials have so far refused to correct their error in the census count.
Tabb said progressives violated the law by taking advantage of the census mistake to consolidate their power in the new districts.
“This redistricting plan is illegal and unconstitutional,” he said.
Worthington said the answer to the problem is getting the Census Bureau to correct the population count as soon as possible and put an adjusted district plan on the ballot.
“We don’t want the (extra people) in District 8,” Worthington said. “But nobody could come up with a legally permissible way to shift the undercounted residents.”
Blake defended the plan he co-drafted.
“The plan speaks for itself,” he said. “It’s interesting that if the opponents of the new districts chose to hold a press conference instead of filing a law suit.”
In addition, Dean said a progressive meeting that took place a day prior to the plan’s approval on Oct. 2 was a violation of the Brown Act – a state law that restricts attendance of non-public meetings by elected officials.
“We are going to ask the Grand Jury to take a look at it,” she said.
Dean added that a Berkeley resident was preparing a letter, which would be sent to the Alameda County Grand Jury early next week.
Progressives argued they closely followed legal procedures during the meeting and that the moderates are simply getting an early start on what apparently will be a negative campaign for the mayor’s office next year.
Dean has said the meeting in question was attended by Spring, Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek, Councilmember Margaret Breland and Blake. She added that it constituted a Brown Act violation when Councilmember Kriss Worthington showed up after the meeting was underway.
The Brown Act makes it illegal for more than four councilmembers to meet without noticing the public. But Worthington’s presence would have been a violation of the Brown Act, only if the redistricting plan were discussed. But those who attended the meeting insist they had finished discussing the issue when Worthington arrived, and if Blake was at the meeting representing Maio, which both Blake and Maio say is ridiculous.
Worthington dismissed the mayor’s charges as politically motivated.
“This is just another example of the extreme statements that the mayor has been making on recent controversial issues,” he said. “I’m sure these comments don’t benefit Berkeley, whether or not they benefit the mayor’s campaign remains to be seen.”