July 12, 2013

Over the next few months, the City of Oakland will be deciding on how to redraw the lines for its seven City Council districts. This redrawing is necessary because, by federal law, the population in each of these districts must be roughly equal. That population must be based upon the latest federal census, the last one of which took place in 2010.
In order to come back into conformance with the new census figures, Oakland must redraw its Council district lines by December 31 of this year.

[Note: the district lines for Oakland Unified School District’s seven school board member districts are tied into the Oakland City Council districts, so that the school board districts will automatically be changed in the same way and the same time.]

If this year’s redrawing goes as it has been done in the past, the City Council, the City Administration, and the redistricting consultants will keep the basic Council district lines pretty much the same way they are now, and only make minor adjustments to get the population figures right. Thus, the biggest argument will be over whether particular neighborhoods should remain in a particular district, or be split down the middle, or be moved entirely out of its current Council district into another, so that some or all of the people in the neighborhood end up having to vote for or against a completely different Councilmember and School Board member than they’re doing now.

It’s an important decision, and that process will take a lot of energy and discussion and argument and decision-making. But if we concentrate only on moving a few neighborhoods around here and there, we’ll be missing a chance to have a much larger discussion and decision on how we want the citizens of Oakland to be represented on Council and on the School Board.

For whatever reason they were drawn in the first place, Oakland’s Council districts have evolved to represent a certain theory of government: that to a greater or lesser degree, each district represents a cross-section of Oakland’s diverse socio-economic population.

A look at the five  Council districts southeast of the downtown area (Districts 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7) shows this quite vividly. District 4 takes in some of the most expensive hill homes in the city, but also drops down almost to Bancroft Avenue in the Deep East flatlands between High Street and Seminary. Districts 2 and 5 both run from the estuary all the way to the border of the city of Piedmont, while similarly, both Districts 6 and 7 run from the flatlands below International to the eastern border of the Oakland hills.

This means that the Councilmembers representing each of these five districts must—to one degree or another—represent the interests of upper income, middle income, and working class/lower income neighborhoods (hills, foothills, and flatlands). And if you believe that this is the best way to elect Oakland Councilmembers, then the current Council boundaries do that as well as any boundaries might do.

But what if you wanted to elect a different type of Councilmembers—those who represent neighborhoods that have a stronger common socio-economic interest—say an upper income district only, or a middle income district only, or a working class/lower income district only. Would it be possible to redraw the district lines to reflect that type of representation?

Yes, it’s possible, and easily done.

All you have to do is take those same five “lower” Council districts—2, 4, 5, 6, and 7—and run them in long strips northwest to southeast, from the area of downtown, Lake Merritt and the City of Piedmont out to the San Leandro border.

Using the most natural street lines, the “bottom” district could have the estuary and, say, International Boulevard as its boundaries.

The “lower middle” district could have International and Bancroft as its boundaries.

The “upper middle” district could have Bancroft and MacArthur Boulevard as its boundaries.

The “upper” district could have MacArthur Boulevard and the eastern city border as its boundaries.

Of course, there would have to be adjustments to make the populations figure out equally, but these are generally the way such district lines could look.

Once you configured these five districts in that manner, conforming Districts 1 and 3 to the same principle—consisting of similar socio-economic neighborhoods—is easily done. Instead of District 3 taking in the Adams Point area around Lake Merritt, Adams Point could be put into District 1. District 3 would then run all the way from the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland out through the North Oakland flatlands to the Berkeley border, taking the North Oakland portion from District 1, and making it into the West Oakland-North Oakland district that many residents of that area have called for. That would make District 3 a completely flatlands district, a predominantly lower income/working class area, while District 1 would comprise the foothills and the hills of North Oakland, a distinctly higher-income area.

Is this a better way to set up Oakland City Council districts than the current configuration? I don’t know.

What I do know is that such a changed district configuration would end up setting up a very different type of City Council, where the Councilmembers would represent individual Council districts where the citizens have far more in common with their fellow district residents.
That might be better, or that might be worse. It depends upon what type of government we want. And that’s where I think the Council redistricting discussions should begin.

Instead of fiddling with maps and neighborhood lines in the beginning, we should first have a discussion of whether we want socio-economically diverse Council districts (as we have now), or if we want those districts to be divided in such a way that the citizens within them have more similar socio-economic interests. It’s an important discussion, and would decide the future way government operates in the city.

Once we made that decision, redrawing the district lines to reflect the vision we decided upon would be very simple.

So let’s have that discussion, friends.