WatchSonoma Watch

Santa Rosa panel: District elections should go to ballot


District elections got a surprise boost Thursday when the committee that tentatively voted against it two weeks ago reversed course and agreed the issue should be put before voters.

Mike Senneff, middle, chairman of Santa Rosa's 21-member Charter Review Committee, listens with his colleagues to Santa Rosa citizens lay out their viewpoints Saturday on district elections for the city's seven council members. (Kent Porter / PD)

Several members of the 21-member Charter Review Committee cited the large, impassioned turnout of residents at the public forum on the issue last Saturday as influencing their thinking.

Key to the turnaround was political consultant Herb Williams’ change of heart, which he said was brought about in part by a speaker on Saturday who referenced the sacrifice of his son, Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, who was killed in 2007 in Iraq.

“Of all the testimony, only one person got to me,” Williams said. “And that was the person who said . . . that Jesse gave his life so that everybody had the right to vote.”

Williams reiterated, however, that he remained solidly against district elections, and was only changing his position about whether it should be placed on the ballot.

“I’m opposed to district elections, but I want the voters to weigh in on it,” Williams said.

Exactly how to go about that, however, proved highly controversial. Several committee members argued strongly that it made no sense for the committee to be against district elections and yet advise the council to put it on the ballot anyway.

“I don’t believe it’s within our province to say we think the charter is good as it is, and yet we think we should put it to a vote,” said Bill Arnone. “It seems inconsistent.”

Chairman Mike Senneff agreed, saying it was the committee’s role to advise the council whether the charter should be changed, and if so, how. Giving the council “an amorphous statement” that it should give voters the chance to decide on district elections crossed a line into telling the council what it should do, which he said was “not our job.”

“Frankly we weren’t asked to that dance. Nobody invited us into that party,” Senneff said. “They are the elected representatives.”

The committee only makes recommendations to the council, which can follow them, ignore them, or decide on its own what to place on an upcoming ballot.

Doug Bosco said it would be “foolish” of the committee to “dump this on the lap of the City Council” without offering specific changes to the charter language.

That’s what political consultant Terry Price initially proposed. He wanted a subcommittee to explore exactly what kind of district elections the City Council should put on the ballot. But Williams and others said they couldn’t support that because suggesting language changes would wrongly imply they supported district elections. Price’s motion failed 11-8.

Ida Johnson then proposed a general motion calling for the City Council to “reconsider at-large elections,” the current system whereby the seven council members are elected citywide.

District elections would carve the city into several electoral districts, much like Sonoma County’s five supervisors represent geographic areas. Some have suggested a hybrid system could be established with some council members continuing to be elected city-wide.

Proponents argue district elections would increase accountability and diversity in city politics by lowering the cost of elections and ensuring every area of the city is represented.

Critics claim district elections are unnecessary, wouldn’t really reduce election costs, and would “Balkanize” city politics and make politicians less concerned about what’s good for the city as a whole.

But Johnson said the message she received Saturday was that residents didn’t want a panel of 21 residents to make the decision for them.

“What I heard all day was let the people decide,” Johnson said.

Davin Cardenas, an activist with the North Bay Organizing Project, said the city’s low voter turnout was evidence of voter apathy. He said district elections would be just the thing to invigorate the democratic process, which he said “should be a beautiful, dirty, rugged wonderful thing that produces fire in people’s bellies.”

Before the vote, resident Elaine Holtz chastised the female members of the committee in particular, reminding them that it wasn’t that long ago they didn’t have the right to vote.

“How dare you vote against having an election for our citizens,” Holtz said. “I feel like I’m on my knees begging for democracy.”

Johnson’s motion won by the narrowest of votes, 10-9. Voting in favor were Donna Jeye, Wayne Goldberg, Bill Steck, Herb Williams, Pam Chanter, Ann Gray Byrd, Sonia Taylor, Ida Johnson, Denise Hill and Bill Carle. Opposing it were Chairman Mike Senneff, Bill Arnone, Pat Fruiht, Doug Bosco, Patti Cisco, Tony Alvernaz, Janet Condron, Bob Andrews and Terry Price.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

22 Responses to “Santa Rosa panel: District elections should go to ballot”

  1. Larry says:

    Has anyone noticed that Mr. Mike Senneff is a voting member of the Charter Review Committee and is also the Managing Partner of Senneff, Freeman, and Bluestone LLC; and that his law firm has extensive contracts with Santa Rosa City and Sonoma County departments. In reviewing what is available on the SRCity WEB site, I could not determine if he is being paid or he is volunteering his time. In either case it would seem to be a Conflict of Interest to be voting on matters that affect the city charter and be Managing Partner with a firm that is doing business with the city.

  2. Jim Bennett says:

    Steveguy: far left or ‘progressive’ is
    code for green Kool-Aide drinking change agents willing to forfeit our rights and freedoms and economy for the ‘environment’?
    To make their deal ‘sustainable’?
    I think so.

    These people, the most devout of which are usually public officials, have told
    (sold?) themselves or have accepted a lie.

    Regionalism is a Soviet model, another socially engineered mechanism to create a more disenfranchised connection between the people and elected officials.
    It’s easier to control the ‘consensus’of a neighborhood through installed ‘neighborhood associations’, than the accumalitive voice of an entire town.
    I’m in the most prolific neighborhood group in town-they never want to hear/ask for our message.
    Because it doesn’t come from ICLEI.

    We still had enough sanity among us to suggest for a vote.

    Now watch the propaganda fly, and take note of who pushes it.

    More reinventing of what was the most successful, admired societal framework in the world.

    A concerted effort to undermine and dilute our sovereignty and voice all the way down to the individual.
    Notice the spin being pushed now suggesting (indoctrinating) ‘devides’?

    Besides, if anything we probably need elections more often not less.

    More manipulation of our process, more control, more ways to sythesize ‘consensus’.

    More shenanigans, as the Irish might say.

  3. Steveguy says:

    Whatever, you are still going to get the Noreen Evans of the world willing to toe the line.

    Heck, I think that Mike Martini was a good guy, too bad he wasn’t a ‘chosen one’ by the Sonoma County Democrat Central Committee.

    We are run by the very far left. Even regular Democrats should be concerned. Oh my

  4. Rojo says:

    I always like it when I get more thumbs down on these blogs. Means I hit a sore spot with the reactionaries! “White privilege” is real but if democracy prevails it will end someday and minorities, including women, will gain equal rights!

  5. Otto Greener says:

    Most of the people I know want the government out of their lives, not more government in our lives.

    A highly paid city council elected by districts means full-time politicians running around passing needless laws and regulations and thinking up ways to build the bureaucracy and their power base.

    This whole district election thing is bad for Santa Rosa but good for the special interests and the socialist politicians who run the place.

  6. Money Grubber says:


    You used the correct term when you stated that “fear” was involved in Sonoma County elections.

    But its not “fear” of the whites vs. non-whites. Its “fear” of those who have held power in the county for generations and who know their control over the county is starting to slip.

    DISTRICT elections clearly are causing fear to those who want to retain their power behind the scenes. The faces of politics are merely the ones you see. In Sonoma County, its the faces that you DON’T see that are the trouble.

  7. Reality Check says:

    The current council-manager model of government replies on the council being a part-time undertaking, doable by citizen volunteers. Unfortunately, it’s become a nearly full-time undertaking, doable only by those retired or with flexible work schedules.

    The full-time, full-pay model opens the thing up to more people, which is good. But do we want a city council that turns into a career position? Term limits keep California legislators from making it a career, but a generous pay package hasn’t improved the quality of those serving.

    No quick fix for what ails us.

  8. Grey Whitmore says:

    I think Reality Check’s point is spot on.

    A better solution would be a council that was paid a wage they could live off of. I’ve heard so many time people, good people, who say they cannot afford public service because they simply don’t have the Monet to.

    3/4 of the cities over 200,000 pay there councils on average $20,000, not huge but certainly more helpful.


  9. Reality Check says:

    A fair compromise would be a split, with 3 council members elected at-large and 4 in districts. I doubt, however, it will make much difference in how city the functions or solves its problems.

    It’s the function of city government that’s the problem, not its form.

  10. Kirstin says:

    Grey Whitmore, do you have a blueprint for your suggested combination at-large and district election process? Are you thinking along the lines of having, say, four districts in which each voter would vote for one of four of the seven council members and then the other three seats would be voted at-large? That would give every voter the opportunity to vote on four (a majority) of the council seats. Or what did you have in mind?

  11. Grey Whitmore says:

    Santa Rosa occupies an interesting juncture vis-a-vis district elections.

    43.7% of the cities sized 70 to 200 thousand have at-large elections. When cities over 200 thousand are looked at the percentage drops to 16.4%.

    Clearly Santa Rosa is at a crossroads. Almost large enough to have district elections function well.

    What is also interesting is the history of at-large elections. They were put into place as a reaction against strong mayors and corruption.

    At large elections were also a cause celebre of the Progressive Era from 1890 to the 1920′s.

    What seems to make sense at this point is a mixed system of at-large and district elections. This gains advantages of both systems, while addressing ongoing issues.

  12. Rojo says:

    Why are people in Northeast Santa Rosa so afraid of giving equal power on the City Council to people in Southwest Santa Rosa! The term is “white privilege” and it is the same reason the Santa Rosa Board of Education voted to close Doyle School in favor of a privileged few who want a “French” language Charter School other alternatives!

  13. Joseph Donegan says:

    It would make more sense to have an elected major from election than the nonsense we have now.

  14. Juvenal says:

    If the United States were run on the same basis as Santa Rosa is now, the entire Congress would be from from Manhattan.

  15. Fishy Fish says:

    Now that the middle class illegal immigrants can vote it’s going to cost the uions allot more money. THis could a chance for political with conviction, intelligence and leadership to turn Sonoma County around.

  16. Living in Paradise says:

    No real pre-notice of the meeting to recommend the district election plan. This committee doesn’t like heat and kicked the decision to the city council. Most bureaucratic of them.

    Only the chosen few knew about the meeting and attended. Those opposed could not attend because of other commitments like work, family, and other committments.

    Even if they had gone they would have been shouted down by the populist demagogues that fill public meetings in Sonoma County. These new brown shirts of Sonoma continue to carry the day while the citizens are either discouraged or distracted.

  17. Jim M says:

    The committee made the right decision here, we do need to put this to a vote, the debate will be good for the city, even if district elections themselves are not. Many people feel alienated from the political process and point to district elections as a way to remedy the system, it is worthwhile to give them the shot to make this case to the city as a whole.

  18. Kirstin says:

    Oh, just want to make one amendment to my statement that any American citizen has the right to vote. The exception is a citizen convicted of a felony. Otherwise, I believe the statement stands.

  19. Kirstin says:

    Ron Paul writes this truth: “Rights belong to individuals, not groups; they derive from our nature and can neither be granted nor taken away by government.” Yes, and as such, the right to vote belongs to the individual, not to groups, too.When each of us steps into the voting booth we do so by ourselves, not crowded in with a bunch of other people. This is what our elections system was founded upon and what we need to continue to protect. At-large elections for city council races in Santa Rosa will better protect that basic right than a change to district elections.

    Not a few people who have lobbied for district elections (at last Saturday’s meeting for the public and otherwise) say that they want this change to allow for better representation of various groups. In the article above, Elaine Holtz is a prime example as she talked about women’s voting rights as though they are in some way still unavailable. Women have had the vote in the U.S. since 1920 (nearly one hundred years). Any American citizen has the right to vote, full stop. Whether they take advantage of this right is another matter, but that again is an individual process, not a collective process. Ah, yes, the collective. Some folks think in terms of the collective, don’t they? It isn’t about individuals for them. It is about increasing the clout of various collective groups, whether they be ethnic groups, unions, or other special interest groups. And the fact is that the most strident advocates of district elections often base their arguments on exactly that.

    This is one of the most important reasons that the city council, when it makes its decision based on this very mixed (confused?) recommendation from the committee, should deliberate very carefully about what it thinks is best for Santa Rosa. As illustrated by the conversation of the committee, there is a dual strain between obligations here. The committee was charged with making recommendations for changes to the charter that they believed in the city’s best interests. By earlier majority, they did not think district elections were best. But a vocal number of the public sought to get the committee to, if not change that evaluation, then at least to fall back from making their honest, initial recommendation to just putting it in the city council’s court. Actually, it always has been in the city council’s court. As this article noted, the council can accept or reject committee recommendations and can choose to place or not place proposed charter changes on the ballot on November.

    I’m a consistent proponent of the view that if there is a question that an appropriate number of voters think affects said voters, it should be decided by the voters. It is interesting that some of voices behind getting this matter on the ballot and who have gathered a couple hundred signatures (?) to that effect were also and inconsistently opposed to the recent campaign to put the radically changed SMART plan on the ballot (nearly 15000 signatures were gathered for that). I accept the fact that RepealSMART did not meet the requisite signature threshold to put that question on the ballot, and so, the voters will not decide that. But with respect to this new pending question, a similar vetting process might be in order as with initiatives brought by the people. Before committing money to funding such an election, shouldn’t we know with more precision if the move for district elections really something a lot of Santa Rosa voters want a chance to decide? Or is this push being orchestrated by small bunch of people who by and large believe it would benefit their view that voting should be about groups, not individuals? I tend to think the latter, based on what I’ve observed, but I’m open to being proved incorrect.

    The whole idea of the Charter Review Committee was for the members to advise the city council. On this issue, they have, as the chairman noted, shifted from advice on the issue itself to narrow recommendation to let the voters decide. Okay, that wasn’t really their mandate, but it is what it is. Probably the city council will do the same; it will listen to the relatively small group (just as it listened to the relatively small Occupy group that appeared in the city council chambers) pushing for district elections and will put the question on the ballot.

    Hopefully, if that is the course taken, the voters will learn both sides of this issue and will make the decision to continue at-large elections and protect the right of every individual voter here to have maximum say about who sits on the city council.

  20. Reality Check says:

    Not surprising, the committee got rolled. People who favor district elections show up; those who don’t, don’t.

    And still the article cited no reasons why district elections would improve anything. No one thought to compare cities with, and without, districts for evidence of a different outcome. No allegations of favoritism in city spending were offered, nothing. What was offered was the same vagueness one hears from the Occupy crowd.

    If the council also caves, we will get district elections. For good reason, the public isn’t happy with city government. They’ll likely grab at any change offered, even one that will surely disappoint.

  21. Money Grubber says:

    They would not have recommended that the issue go to ballot were it not for close voter scrutiny.

    They were hand picked to retain the existing system that favors the powerful over the less influential.

    Now, lets see if DISTRICT elections are allowed to go to ballot. Notice I said “allowed.” You see. The existing power brokers are looking for a way to exclude this from a ballot vote.

  22. BC Capps says:

    I applaud the Charter Review Committee for making this change to their position, but am still fearful that the resultant process to determine the details of district elections will be so politicized as to cripple the effort completely. I sincerely hope that my fears are unfounded and that the full City Council will work together to develop a win-win situation for ALL residents of Santa Rosa.