By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A parade of speakers on Saturday called for district elections in Santa Rosa, saying the concept is more democratic and would bridge the city’s economic and ethnic divide.
“The current system does not work for the most marginalized” residents, said Omar Gallardo, referring to the low-income Roseland and Apple Valley areas. “I encourage you to bring back democracy.”
About three dozen members of Gallardo’s group, the North Bay Organizing Project, attended a public hearing hosted by Santa Rosa’s Charter Review Committee at the Utilities Field Operations building on Stony Point Road.
About 130 people attended the three-hour meeting to consider possible changes to the city charter, including a switch from citywide voting for all seven council members to separate voting in seven districts.
By unofficial count, 44 speakers favored district elections and two supported the status quo.
Boisterous applause followed some of the majority comments, voiced by whites, Latinos, blacks, academics, clergy, activists and residents from all quarters of the city.
Nineteen committee members, appointed by the council, made no comment. The committee, which previously had rejected district elections on a 10-6 straw vote, is expected to recommend charter amendments to the council in May.
The council will decide whether to put any amendments to a public vote in November.
“I don’t want my city known for having an exclusionary attitude,” said Rev. Curtis Byrd, who noted he is the second African-American appointed to the Planning Commission. “The time for change has passed.”
Northeast Santa Rosa residents have long dominated the council and other policy-making boards, and in 145 years only two westside residents and two minorities have been elected to the council.
The Rev. R. Tim Carnahan took a humorous tack, saying that as a northeast neighborhood resident he ought to feel well-represented, but does not.
“They’ve never bothered to walk down the hill to my house,” he said.
Judy Kennedy, a Burbank Gardens area resident, said that district elections would produce candidates “who represent the point of view of our neighbors and those who live and work nearby.”
Andy Merrifield, a Sonoma State University political science professor who lives in Santa Rosa, gave the discussion an academic twist, describing the notion that northeast area residents know best as a “neocolonialist viewpoint.”
Stephen Gale, a local Democratic Party leader, said he had “a sense of deja vu” at Saturday’s meeting.
“Ten years ago you heard most of these same reasons” for district elections, he said. “The issue is before you now and it’s not going to go away.”
Keith Woods, chief executive officer of North Coast Builders Exchange in Santa Rosa, said he had served 10 years ago with Merrifield on the last charter review panel.
“I admire the passion in the room here,” Woods said, but warned of “unintended consequences” from district elections.
Woods said he once lived in a city with 10 council districts that “created 10 small kingdoms” and forced council members to fight for one-tenth of everything done in the city, which he did not name.
Kirstin Merrihew, a Coddingtown area resident, said district elections would “balkanize Santa Rosa.”
“We need to be a whole city, pulling together,” she said, but allowed that it would be all right to put district elections to a vote.
Lee Pierce, the city’s first black council member who lost a bid for the state Assembly in 2010, said he used to favor citywide elections but now feels the system is not working.
“All we are saying here is take it to the people,” Pierce said.
Three other charter topics — the Community Advisory Board, mayoral elections and binding arbitration — received scant attention.
The committee’s next meeting is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Utilities Field Operations building, 35 Stony Point Road.