BERKELEY -- It was a balmy Sunday afternoon in the lull between Christmas and New Year's, and there were a million things Lynn Riordan said she'd rather be doing than stopping shoppers on their way into the North Berkeley Safeway with a petition to put the new City Council district boundaries approved in December before voters.

The petition can hardly be explained in a sound bite and many people walked by Riordan and her clip board.

"I'm just doing this to support Kriss," Riordan told this newspaper, referring to District 7 Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district would be the one most effected by the new redistricting ordinance.

"It's an obvious move to get him off the council," she said.

Lois Jones and referendum volunteer Lynn Riordan outside the North Shattuck Safeway.
Lois Jones and referendum volunteer Lynn Riordan outside the North Shattuck Safeway.

Lois Jones was one of those who signed the petition. She was already familiar with the issue and agreed with Riordan. "I'd heard that the current (City Council) lines are being gerrymandered to deny votes to Kriss Worthington," she said.

The city is required to redraw district boundaries every 10 years based on census data to maintain approximately the same number of residents in each district. The current revision places about 14,000 people in each of Berkeley's eight districts.

At the heart of the controversy is that the district map approved by the City Council eliminates seven Northside co-ops from District 7, which Worthington contends are traditionally his strong supporters.

Proponents of the redistricting law, likely away on vacation, did not return requests for comment. Many spoke before the City Council in early December, arguing in favor of the proposal to create what they are calling a "student district," with around 86 percent of its residents aged 18 to 28. They say the district would represent unique student interests, including crime prevention and affordable housing.

Ben Feiner, the Associated Students of the University of California liaison with the City Council, spoke to the council Dec. 3, downplaying the opposition's insistence that the co-ops north of campus should be included. "Some people say some students are more important than others," he said, but "it's impossible to include all students in the district."

And writing in the Daily Californian on Nov. 26, Safeena Mecklai, ASUC external affairs vice president, said a referendum would be "completely irresponsible."

She went on to write: "Encouraging students to turn their backs on their own district could cause us to lose everything. If a referendum is filed and passed, the nation's first-ever student district would be abandoned ... A successful referendum would kill the student district and there would be absolutely no guarantee that we would get another."

Worthington bristled at the notion that the adopted map includes the "first student district," arguing that a student district is already in place, given that 70 percent of District 7 residents are aged 18 to 28.

Matthew Lewis, a member of the Residence Hall Assembly, the student government for students living in the dorms, argued that not only would eliminating the co-ops from District 7 deny the city access to a progressive voice, it would unfairly put students now in District 7 into District 6. "They would represent 5 percent of a district that is mostly wealthy homeowners that have different concerns from the students."

Supporters have 30 days from Dec. 19 to collect the 5,275 signatures needed to qualify a referendum for the ballot.

Worthington said that even though the campaign has about 45 volunteers, the holiday season is a hard time to gather signatures.

"Around 20 percent of Berkeley is gone for the holidays and the dorms are closed," he said, noting that the team managing the petition campaign plans supplement volunteers by raising funds to pay signature gatherers.

If the referendum is successful, Worthington said, the City Council can choose to place the question of invalidating the law before the voters on the June or November ballot, or the council could try to satisfy referendum sponsors by adopting a compromise district map. This was the case 10 years ago when a council-approved redistricting map was successfully challenged.