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 firstname.lastname@example.org.