For anyone with ideas about how to improve the way Santa Rosa is governed, it’s time to step up to the microphone.
Santa Rosa’s charter review process — a once-a-decade mini-Constitutional Convention — hosts a special public forum Saturday.
The issues may be less weighty than those facing the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia in 1787. Instead of debating the structure of a bicameral legislature or whether to abolish the slave trade, Santa Rosa’s 21-member Charter Review Committee is pondering how City Council elections should be run and who should resolve disputes with police and firefighters.
Other issues include direct elections of the mayor, the role of the Community Advisory Board and whether workers’ pensions have to come through the state.
The committee, which has been meeting for months, is expected to tell the City Council by May what changes it thinks should be put before voters in the fall. The City Council makes the final decision.
The meeting runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the city’s Utilities Field Operations building, 35 Stony Point Road.
Even though all its votes to date have been preliminary, the committee appears to have made up its mind on a key issue. It voted 16-0 against a directly elected mayor, citing in part the experience of former Petaluma City Council members who said that having a mayor with limited power has been challenging.
But other issues are far from settled, and whether they ever reach the ballot box could turn on input from the public.
The committee already has given a tentative thumbs-down to district elections, the most divisive issue it has faced. The straw vote was 10-6, but several members have said they will bring an open mind to Saturday’s public forum.
Advocates say that if the city were sliced up into seven electoral districts, City Council members would be more accountable to voters. Currently, Santa Rosa, like 92 percent of the state’s 484 cities, has citywide elections for its seven council members.
Supporters argue district elections would bring some geographic diversity to the council because every section of the city would have a representative.
And they claim that by shrinking the size of the area in which candidates would need to campaign, costs would drop and political newcomers would be able to serve, resulting in a more economically diverse council.
Questions also have been raised about whether the city, with a 29 percent Latino population, could face a lawsuit alleging minorities are being disenfranchised by an unequal electoral process.
Opponents of the idea say there is diversity on the council. They point to Mayor Ernesto Olivares, who is Latino, Councilman John Sawyer, who is gay, and former Councilman Lee Pierce, who is black.
“I don’t see anything that’s broken here that needs to be fixed,” said committee member Herb Williams, a campaign consultant who worked for Olivares, Sawyer and Pierce.
Critics also worry that chopping up the city into districts risks the “balkanization” of city politics. City Council members should be looking out for the city as a whole, not just issues in their own back yards, they argue. They also say election costs will ultimately rise once special interests get involved.
They note that district elections won’t necessarily bring economic diversity to the council because people with regular jobs can’t afford the time commitment.
“I don’t care how many districts you create, you’re going to have an elite group that can afford to serve,” said committee member Patty Cisco, chairwoman of the city’s Planning Commission.
Police and firefighters can’t go on strike. State law prevents it. That reduces their bargaining power and leverage in negotiations with the city. To offset this imbalance, voters in 1996 added a charter requirement for contract disputes with public safety groups to be settled by binding arbitration. Neither side has invoked the process, but it remains controversial.
Labor groups argue the measure put them on a more even footing with the city and ushered in an era of good labor relations. Critics claim it gives the unions too much power and is indirectly responsible for the long upward march in pay and pensions for police officers and firefighters.
Discussions about the issue took a detour, however, when the committee agreed to delay a vote on putting the issue before voters until they knew what changes police and firefighters might accept.
Currently, an arbitrator is supposed to take into account several factors in ruling on contract disputes, including the pay workers in comparable cities receive and “financial condition of the City of Santa Rosa.”
A three-member subcommittee met with public safety labor representatives and hammered out language that more clearly defines the city’s ability to pay. These include when the city has a general fund deficit, can’t pay third parties, or has declared a fiscal emergency. The full committee hasn’t yet addressed the proposal.
Directly elected mayor
The mayor of Santa Rosa is selected for a two-year term by the council majority. In some cities, such as Petaluma, the mayor is elected directly by voters.
If the mayor doesn’t have enough allies on the council, however, it can be an honorary post with limited power.
Petaluma Mayor David Glass told the committee that there are several challenges to being elected directly. If the field is fragmented, the winner of the mayor’s seat could turn out to be “completely out of synch with almost all of the community,” he said.
Pam Torliatt, mayor of Petaluma from 2007 to 2011, said there might be some value in rotating the mayorship to every council member.
Committee members seemed to take those suggestions to heart, with the committee voting unanimously against the idea.
“I’m pretty clear in my own mind that an elected mayor in the present situation doesn’t make sense,” committee member Bill Carle said.
Community Advisory Board
The 14-member Community Advisory Board was created to represent the views of the broader community on issues important to the City Council.
Voters established it through the previous charter review process 10 years ago, but most agree it has yet to live up to its potential.
The committee heard a presentation from board members, who outlined how the board’s role has changed over time and how many feel it is operating well at the moment.
City Manager Kathy Millison has asked the charter committee to hold off on making recommendations on the board’s structure or mission until she has time to discuss whether the City Council has ideas for tweaks short of a charter amendment.
Some committee members worry that if they wait too long, they’ll run out of time.
Early in the process, the charter committee unanimously agreed to remove language from the charter requiring city workers to receive pensions through the state Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS. The move was seen as a way to give the city flexibility should it seek to switch to a different pension model.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.