Santa Rosa moves closer to vote on district elections

Santa Rosa voters may get to decide in November whether they want to elect their City Council representatives by districts rather than citywide.

City Council members expressed support Tuesday for the recommendations of the 21-member Charter Review Committee, including putting district elections before voters in the fall.

“I don't see why we shouldn't move forward with the committee's recommendations,” Mayor Ernesto Olivares said.

The move sets the stage for a Nov. 6 vote which, if approved, could lead to the first-ever City Council election by districts in 2014.

Supporters of district elections packed the City Council chambers, with dozens holding signs saying “District Elections. Let the voters decide.” Many pushed for a “simple seven” format with seven council members elected from seven districts and a mayor named from their ranks.

Kyra Janssen, 74, said she attended the charter review meetings, studied the district elections issue closely and concluded that while it is not a “silver bullet,” it's preferable given the changing face of Santa Rosa.

“District elections looks to the future rather than to the past,” Janssen said.

One of the main arguments for district elections has long been that it would broaden diversity in local politics, which has historically been controlled by residents from the wealthier and whiter northeast section of the city. All seven city council members live in the northeast.

Anne Seeley, of Concerned Citizens of Santa Rosa, said there would be several other benefits to district elections, including reducing the costs of political campaigns and thereby allowing people of more modest means to serve; reduced election costs for the city; and making it easier for voters get to know their elected representatives.

“We think it really is the time to give your constituents the choice in this matter,” Seeley said.

Other supporters noted that studies show district elections increase voter participation. Others claimed district elections make sense given the city's emphasis on strong, distinct neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most unexpected testimony was from David Walls of the North Bay Organizing Project, who linked district elections to the civil rights struggle by invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“Today we say let freedom ring in Santa Rosa!” Wall said.

He then led the chamber, accompanied by a guitarist, in a nearly standing-room-only rendition of “My Country 'Tis of Thee.”

Not everyone claimed district elections would improve the city's politics.

World War II veteran Arthur Koenig, 85, said he'd voted in every City Council election for the past 50 years and never once voted for someone because of where they lived, but rather did so based on the positions they took.

“Don't vote for the seven districts because we're going to have (separation) instead of continuity within our city,” Koenig said.

The council didn't make a final decision. It accepted the report of the committee and instructed City Attorney Caroline Fowler to return with more information about the three significant items being recommended: district elections, setting clearer ground rules for the arbitration of public safety contract disputes, and allowing so-called design-build city government projects, which are designed and constructed by the same contractor.

The council has until Aug. 10 to tell the county registrar of voters what measures it wants on the ballot. Each measure will cost the city $75,000. Several minor ones many be included in a “cleanup” ballot measure.

Fowler said that it would be difficult to establish district boundaries before the election and thus let the voters approve them.

An alternative would be to simply ask voters whether they support switching to electing all seven council members by district. If the measure passed, the council could hold public hearings to decide what the boundaries of the districts would be, and approve them in time for the 2014 election.

Committee member Bill Carle, an attorney who served on the previous charter review panel 10 years ago, said he wasn't in favor of them then but is now because of the passage of the California Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law in 2002.

He said he worried that the city might be in violation of the act because the city may have areas of “racially polarized voting.” This could lead to expensive litigation that he said he'd prefer to avoid.

“I don't want to spend millions of dollars in lawsuits down the line. I want to spend that on city services, Carle said.

He urged the city to hire a consultant to determine if the city is in violation of the act before November.

“If in fact those patterns exist, there ought to nobody who votes against district elections, because it would be fiscally irresponsible,” Carle said.

This story originally appeared in the Press Democrat on June 12, 2012 and is available here: