By PAUL GULLIXSON
I acknowledge the folly of arguing against something so simple as dividing the city into equal parts. From a young age, we’re all hard-wired to believe the solution to any problem is to measure twice, cut once — and share evenly. To suggest otherwise, is almost un-American.
I only offer this: As King Solomon showed in a dispute between two mothers, while division may be the most attractive solution, it doesn’t always produce the best outcome. That is, a city, like an infant, is more than the sum of its parts.
There are reasons why the vast majority of California cities — 92 percent in all — and cities across the nation have avoided creating districts as a means to achieving greater representation and therefore, presumably, better government. Here are a few:
The potential for parochialism: The concern is that if we divide the city seven ways, representatives would be focused primarily on what’s best for their section, sometimes at the expense of what’s best for the overall city. Would it be pervasive? Of course not. We all have the capacity to look beyond our own self-interests — and our street interests. But, when it comes time for re-election, there’s no denying these electeds are going to be graded on what they did for their slice of the Santa Rosa pie.
I don’t know about you, but in my view, there are parts of town, including where I live in east Santa Rosa, that don’t need one-seventh of the available city services and discretionary funding. Bigger needs exist elsewhere. Yet I find it hard to believe that someone seeking re-election in our ward, or any area, would win based on what they did for other parts of town, especially if challenged by someone who claims the incumbent is “out of touch” with the district’s needs and is promising to bring home the bacon.
Aren’t we divided enough already? What about all the talk about building bridges and tearing down walls? Yes, the county Board of Supervisors is broken up by district, as are 57 of the state’s 58 counties. Even so, I don’t follow the logic that because a county of 1,768 square miles is divided into five parts, therefore a city of 41 square miles should be divided into seven. Yes, the county Board of Education is divided by district as well. But one would be hardpressed to explain why.
Geographic diversity does not guarantee ethnic nor political diversity. There’s no promise that because we carve out a district in southwest Santa Rosa, for example, that the city will have more Latino representation on the City Council. Depending on the number of candidates and the turnout, any district could still produce someone who looks and votes like council members past and present.
Seven seats, one vote: If we slice up Santa Rosa in seven parts, residents will only get to vote on those running in their part of town. They will have no say, no vote, concerning who represents the other 86 percent of the community. And with staggered elections, they would likely only get to vote once every four years. How is that better representation?
In the end, we would be creating districts based on the presumption that our interests are parochial while promising that our politics wouldn’t be? It doesn’t ring true.
Would it be the end of the world if the city decides to go with district elections? Of course not. But let’s not pretend that it will be the solution to what ails Santa Rosa politics or even that it will correct some historic wrong. There will be unintended consequences.
If the real obstacle to getting residents of the westside to run for office is cost, then let’s confront that issue by brainstorming on how to create revolving funds or some other mechanism that would help entice candidates.
Whatever we do, let’s avoid making sweeping generalizations about the contributions of generations of public servants based primarily on their ethnicity and their residential quadrant. There’s no question that Santa Rosa’s civic leaders have made mistakes in terms of land-use planning, zoning, development approvals, sidewalk maintenance, etc. And there’s no denying that the city would benefit from more input and civic leadership from those on the westside. But it’s a convenient narrative to blame the city’s woes on where current and past council members have called home. There’s plenty of blame to be shared — equally.
There’s also a better solution to be found than building more walls.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.