By JIM SWEENEY
Consider these numbers: two and 145.
Santa Rosa became a city 145 years ago. Since then, two westside residents and two minorities have been elected to the City Council.
Here’s one more number: 20. I’ve lived in west Santa Rosa for just over 20 years, and the council has been talking practically the entire time about the lack of racial and geographic diversity in city government.
Talk is great — for council members. As long as they stick to talking, and maybe wringing their hands for effect, no one’s seat is in jeopardy. Residents of the northeast neighborhoods that dominate the council, the planning commission and the rest of the city’s policymaking boards continue to do so.
If the council allows voters to weigh in, that might change. If voters opt for district elections, we would immediately see new faces, from more neighborhoods, looking up from the dais.
Would that guarantee better government? No.
Would it ensure a more racially or ethnically diverse council? No.
Here’s what district elections would do:
Give residents an elected official, with a stake in their part of town, to approach with neighborhood problems.
Promote accountability because there’s a specific representative for each neighborhood.
Ensure geographic representation.
If you attend today’s public forum on city charter revisions, you’ll almost certainly hear that, rather than reducing the sense of disenfranchisement in large parts of Santa Rosa, district elections would be divisive, promoting parochial interests over the common good.
Ask yourself, is that true for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors? The Santa Rosa Junior College board of trustees? The Sonoma County board of education?
My answers are no, no and no.
We also elect our legislative and congressional representatives by district — and protest fiercely if boundary changes lump us in with distant communities. In June, when a draft congressional map put Sonoma and Sutter counties in the same district, an editorial in this newspaper demanded, “What exactly does Santa Rosa have in common with Yuba City and Arbuckle?”
If you live in Coffey Park or Bellevue Ranch, you might ask the same question about Fountaingrove or the Grace Tract.
Another argument you’re likely to hear is that westside residents haven’t been on the council because relatively few of them have run.
It isn’t written down anywhere, but there’s a means test for serving on the council, and it’s enforced by at-large elections. A credible citywide campaign costs $30,000, and the pricetag is climbing with each election cycle. District elections would cut campaign costs — and foster closer ties between elected officials and their constituents.
Santa Rosa has 167,800 residents and 79,500 registered voters. In the past three elections, turnout has ranged from 54,000 voters to 72,000.
If the city were divided into seven districts, or six districts with an elected mayor, each council member would represent 24,000 to 28,000 residents. Registered voters aren’t distributed evenly, but no district is likely to have more than 15,000 voters.
With a pool of 15,000, meeting voters one-on-one or in small groups is much more manageable. And, with fewer voters to reach, mail — the primary expense in local campaigns — would be considerably less costly.
About a quarter of similarly sized U.S. cities already have district elections. But whenever Santa Rosa residents have expressed interest in having them here, the council has found a reason to deny them a vote.
In the 1990s, they expanded the council from five members to seven, predicting more diversity. When nothing changed, they created a Community Advisory Board. The board quickly settled into obscurity, and now some council members are questioning its value.
So, two decades have passed, one neighborhood still dominates City Hall (minus one outlier from Bennett Valley), and we’re still debating the merits of district elections.
Let’s put it on the ballot. Let the proponents and the opponents make their best arguments, and let Santa Rosans decide what they want.
You know, democracy.
Jim Sweeney is an editorial writer for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 521-5201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.