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GOLIS: Will Santa Rosa be a city divided?


Once every decade, Santa Rosans focus on the people and neighborhoods who are under-represented in city government. One side endorses district elections as the only way to bring political equality to the city. The other side says everything is OK and district elections wouldn’t work anyway.

They take a vote, district elections are rejected, and everybody goes home.

And another 10 years passes. This has happened twice before.

On Thursday night, I went to see if history would repeat itself.

There’s a lot to like about the 2011-12 Charter Review Committee. These are conscientious, slightly wonky people trying to work through complex issues.

They remain divided, of course, in ways we have come to expect. In the popular shorthand, there is the business group and the environmental group. You know who they are even if they don’t wear contrasting uniforms and publish a program. From time to time, a sharp exchange reminds us they are not best friends.

But they are more alike than they might want to admit. It has been noted before that the composition of this 21-member committee is symptomatic of the problem — Exhibit A in any conversation about city government’s insularity. When City Council members made their appointments, the sign on the door might have read: Only friends and political insiders need apply.

Three-quarters of the committee members live in the prosperous neighborhoods of the city’s northeast quadrant. The committee includes two former mayors, a former congressman, a former city manager, a former assistant to the city manager, several former members of boards and commissions, two school board members, two political consultants and two union officials.

But somehow council members weren’t able to find anyone under 53 years old to serve on the committee, or even one Latino (in a city where Latinos represent at least 28 percent of the population).

This selection process managed to ignore a couple of decades of complaints about a political establishment that couldn’t be bothered to reach out to new neighborhoods and to new residents.

When the committee conversation got around to district elections on Thursday night, the arguments were the ones we have heard before.

“I don’t think our system is broken or dysfunctional,” said lawyer and former Congressman Doug Bosco.

Bosco said “there’s no evidence” that district elections would help elect minorities to the City Council, or that city expenditures favor the neighborhoods in which most council members live.

Campaign consultant Terry Price disagreed. “Everything is better on the east side of town than on the west side,” he said, “All you have to do is drive around to see that.”

“At some point in time, we have to go to district elections,” he predicted.

Price said district elections would guarantee that more neighborhoods are represented on the council. He also said district elections would reduce the cost of running for office because a candidate wouldn’t be obliged to reach every voter in the city.

Not so, said Bosco and another campaign consultant, Herb Williams. They argued moneyed interests will influence district elections just as they influence citywide elections. “The cost of these elections will rise overall,” said Williams.

Finally, another committee member, Sonia Taylor, suggested the panel may not understand the circumstances of people who live in less privileged neighborhoods.

“I cannot be comfortable saying there is no problem and nothing has to change,” said Taylor. “I don’t know if district elections will make things better, but they will be different.”

She added, “I think it’s time to let the voters decide.”

When the straw votes were counted, history did repeat itself. The committee once again rejected district elections, denying voters an opportunity to decide the issue. Keeping to what amounts to the party line in Santa Rosa, the vote was 10-6. Unless the committee changes its mind, the idea is likely dead for another 10 years.

But now what?

We know that Santa Rosa remains a city divided, east and west, between those who have more and those who have less, between those who have access to government and those who do not.

Successful cities make neighborhoods feel respected and represented. Unsuccessful cities keep kicking the can down the road.

You don’t have to like district elections to understand that Santa Rosa needs to find a remedy before another 10 years pass.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

17 Responses to “GOLIS: Will Santa Rosa be a city divided?”

  1. Laura Gonzalez says:

    This letter was recently released by the CA School Boards Assn. I have changed or eliminated parts that deal specifically with school districts. If SR gets sued, can we make the council pay for it out of their own pockets, since they don’t want it?

    The California Voting Rights Act (Elections Code 14025-14032) prohibits at-large elections, in which voters of the entire jurisdiction elect members of the governing board, when it can be shown that such elections dilute or abridge the rights of voters who are members of a protected class. Under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), voters who are members of a racial, color or language minority group may file an action against a local government alleging racially polarized voting. If the court determines that a violation has occurred, it will implement appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based or by-trustee area elections where members of the governing board are elected by voters residing within smaller voting districts where the board member resides.
    It is recommended…[to] assess potential liability and ensure that minorities are not being disenfranchised in local elections. Here are some key
    questions for districts to consider:

    - Does the district currently conduct at-large or district-based elections for
    governing board members?
    - What are the current demographics of the community served by the district? What
    minorities constitute the voting-age population?
    - Does the racial and ethnic make-up of the governing board reflect that of the
    - How can we utilize the recent census data to assess our district’s risk factors?
    - What is the history of minority candidates and elected members of the board? What do past voting trends show?
    - Will converting to a district-based election system improve minority
    representation on the board?
    I wonder if there is enough evidence for some group to file a suit in SR?

  2. Kirstin says:

    Money Grubber, districts are useful for large-scale representation (such as state of federal levels) in which there are true and significant differences in the areas represented and in which geographical distance affects the situation considerably (our interests are not always the same as those of residents of LA or SF or Sacramento, for instance). However, a city of medium size such a Santa Rosa does not need such artificial divisions. City issues handled by the city council concern us all and therefore we should all be able to vote on each council member. Limiting voters to selecting only one of the council reduces our influence instead of increasing it. Harry Callahan and Reality Check have it right.

  3. Money Grubber says:

    The best representation of the public is through DISTRICT elections.

    That is why all states and federal decisions are made through DISTRICT voting.

    You never want a group of people in one area making decisions for people living in other areas. District elections prevent that.

  4. Harry Callahan says:

    If you want the public sector unions to have even more power dictating what goes on at city hall, you definitely are in the yes column for district elections.

    District elections would mean a more divided city not a united city. Think about how the little “special project” tax monies would be spent in that certain district with a powerful political boss in charge.

    Since the public unions are the new political bosses, what benefits, money and goodies would be directed to those areas with the highest number of union employees and their families.

    Forget budget reforms, pension and benefit reforms and big city deficits, more taxes and public spending as far as the eye can see.

  5. J L Anderson says:

    What Hypocrisy!!!

    First, if the people want district elections, fine.

    But Lefties always talk about “equality” and “discrimination is bad” and that “skin color and ethnicity don’t matter” so we need a color-blind society (of course, except for that small matter of affirmative action where skin color and ethnicity can be used to gain a preference, and then suddenly discrimination is good).

    And here, it’s proclaimed that elections should consider ethnicity so Latinos can be better represented because older white people from the East side could not possibly govern in everyone’s interests.

    So those same people who like to label posters here as “racist” because they disagree with illegal immigration, Obama or typical left-wing idiocy are now all for using race and ethnicity as a gauge for elections.

    Now that’s racist.

  6. Fried Fish says:

    Sonoma County and Santa Rosa community is absolutely pathetic. It’s dying a slow death. Thank goodness it makes a half way decent wine.

  7. Lisa Maldonado says:

    @Stars Yes, that was my point, I incorrectly reversed the numbers. Your comment proves my point even better though, because it’s telling that so many are familiar with the East /West dichotomy that the mistake is jarring.
    Thanks for clarifying

  8. StarsuponThars says:

    Lisa: just want to clarify:

    when you said:

    “Shame on Mayor Olivares for allowing and encouraging a Charter Review comprised of overwhelmingly White,business interests over the age of 55 and all from the west side to tell the people of Santa Rosa (who are increasingly, young, Latino and living on the East Side) that “there is no problem” and no need to even allow us to vote on district elections,” i’m pretty sure you swapped the east/west…

    so it should read:

    Shame on Mayor Olivares for allowing and encouraging a Charter Review comprised of overwhelmingly White,business interests over the age of 55 and all from the EAST side to tell the people of Santa Rosa (who are increasingly, young, Latino and living on the WEST Side) that “there is no problem” and no need to even allow us to vote on district elections.

    yes? i’m not trying to be a stickler or criticize, i just think that is and important part of the main point…

    for the record, i’m for district elections. our city is no longer a unified “small town” (if it ever was), and people need to accept that. different neighborhoods have different characters, and it’s time they all had a shot at being equally represented.

  9. Jim Bennett says:

    Answer: NO.

    Our community will be less devided.

    As time passes this year, as this extreme sabotage to our rights, our water, our economy, our agriculture and food supply, our health and our well being becomes more obvious.
    People will start to wake up.

    Like folks tend to do in an emergency…
    they will unite.

    The resolve for our very ongoing will provide a common-unity.

    If they kept in check, who knows how long they could have gotten away with this tyranny, but nooo.

  10. Harry Callahan says:

    @ bear

    You have your “facts” confused with reality. Multinationals didn’t contribute to the winners, and they are winners, in the last Santa Rosa City council election.

    The public unions endorse, campaign, fund and elect the local democrats who are in their political debt for their term or terms in office.

    Stop reading that union propaganda you get from the local and open your eyes. G.E. doesn’t care who sweeps 3rd Street. SEIU certainly cares who will continue to vote for their pensions and benefits.

    That is why you and Golis are off the tracks.

  11. Lisa Maldonado says:

    Of course people like Doug Bosco and Herb Williams believe that the city council elections are fine just as they are. They embody the same demographic of the people who have been running this town for years. They were appointed by the City Council majority to do exactly that, represent the people who have always ruled Santa Rosa from their own interests. When the Charter Review Committee was first picked, the statistics on the lack of geographic, age and Latino representation on the Charter Review committee were pointed out by many(including the Press Democrat) and the Mayor and council majority were given a chance to rectify that appalling situation but chose not to. It’s fairly obvious that this is a fix by the Mayor and council majority to keep those voters who have always been disenfranchised out of city politics. Shame on Mayor Olivares for allowing and encouraging a Charter Review comprised of overwhelmingly White,business interests over the age of 55 and all from the west side to tell the people of Santa Rosa (who are increasingly, young, Latino and living on the East Side) that “there is no problem” and no need to even allow us to vote on district elections.
    If the City Council Majority and the Mayor are determined to keep voters from deciding if we want district elections, then we should remember this when Council member Sawyer and Olivares and the rest of their majority ask for our vote. We should alo remind ourselves that asking for the City Council to place district elections is only one way to get it on the ballot. There is nothing to stop citizens who are tired of being left out of our city’s governing process from collecting signatures and putting t on the ballot our selves.

    Oh and one slight correction, there are not two union reps on the committee. Tony Alvernez is the head of an employee “association” which is not a member of any state or national affiliated union such as the AFL-CIO or Change to Win.

  12. Follower says:

    Corporations must balance Union concessions with profitability or they go out of business. PERIOD!

    Government has no such concern.

    And what does “evading taxes” have to do with ANYTHING?

    Government doesn’t PAY TAXES!

    Talk about a “delusional rant”…

  13. John says:

    @ Harry – “Speaking of political equity”, If you recall recent history, ‘The Press Democrat’ endorsed ALL of the council candidates that won last election. Who has more influence or “control” over elections?
    Who gives more money, Unions(working people) who have to disclose ALL donations or corporate interests(as individuals) that don’t?

  14. bear says:


    Please tell us something to back up your rant. Are you somehow suffering from the delusion that public employee unions have more influence than multinational corporations who evade taxes in every way possible?

    I don’t think so. Don’t rant. State your facts or shut up.

  15. Harry Callahan says:

    And your point is Golis? It sounds like you are another one of those leftists waiting for the revolution. You believe others that have more than you do, need to have it taken away and distributed to you and your comrades.

    Golis look around this country and the world. There are people everwhere who have more than you by virture of hard work, inheritance, or just good fortune. They do not deserve to have it redistributed through an unfair tax structure, government confiscation, or being robbed.

    People get ahead by working hard and having goals in this society. People who think like you do believe the government will solve the financial problems you could not solve by the misfortune of taking the wrong career path or the wrong job.

    Speaking of political equity, the public unions which fund, elect and control the local and state politicians certainly have too much to say about how things are done in this county and in the state. The citizens or taxpayers, are left out in the cold. Now thats a political inequity.

    Going to district elections in Santa Rosa would only strenghten the unions power over the city council.

    Public unions are the moneyed interested in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa. Think unfunded public pensions and benefits.

  16. Money Grubber says:


    Its hard for Golis to pretend his wisdom if you force him to actually identify facts rather than spew propaganda and speak in generalities.

  17. Reality Check says:

    Golis apparently felt no burden to identify even a single area in which one side of the city is being shortchanged in city services. Not one.

    Are there fewer police or fire services on the west side? Are the streets paved better on the east? More parks on one side versus the other? If so, speak up. If not, what are you talking about?

    The city is not in business of delivering “respect,” which Golis worries about. The city delivers tangible services that can be measured. If those services are fairly apportioned, what’s the beef?

    Given the meager or no pay one gets for serving on city boards or commissions, it’s not surprising that its members tend to fall withing certain ages and occupations. Most people with real jobs and families simply haven’t the time to serve.

    The myth that the interests of people living on the west side are different than those on east side needs to be recognized for what it is, a misguided effort to divide where no division exists.