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GOLIS: Time for district elections


The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday night heard a variety of arguments in support of district elections, but there remains one argument that stands out from all the others. It goes like this:

Pete Golis.

For 20 years, city councils have pledged to reach out to the unrepresented neighborhoods of the city, but nothing has changed. The same people from the same northeast neighborhoods run the show, leaving the rest to believe that City Hall is not interested in their views.

To be successful, cities need to share the tasks of citizenship and the pride of being part of one community.

For Santa Rosa, nothing is more important right now than figuring out how to make that happen.

Will district elections make it all better? Not without other good-faith efforts.

But it’s time to shake City Hall from its long slumber.

As the City Council began sorting through the recommendations from seven months of work by a Charter Review Committee, other reasons for district elections were also submitted.

Some argued that voters ought to be able to decide an issue that has been debated for so long.

Others said a ballot measure is necessary to immunize the city from voting rights litigation that could cost millions of dollars.

Others still — with a bit of hyperbole — said it’s a matter of simple democracy, as if voters in some neighborhoods aren’t even allowed to vote. “Let freedom ring,” they declared.

I am late to the cause of district elections. In past years, I’ve written my share of editorials urging the city to find ways to create an inclusive government without creating political and economic competition among neighborhoods.

In my (weak) defense, I can only say that it never occurred to me that city officials wouldn’t respond to the geographic and demographic changes that are transforming the city.

It’s so obvious, or so I thought. Inaction could only lead to malaise, inequity and resentment.

If there was a moment that demonstrated that city officials remain oblivious to the changes all around us, it came when this City Council appointed the latest Charter Review Committee. The composition reads like a who’s who of City Hall insiders — a former city manager, two former mayors, a former congressman, a former assistant to the city manager, several former members of boards and commissions, two union officials and two school board members. The council even found room for two rival campaign consultants.

Three-quarters of the committee members come from the same northeast corner of the city that has dominated city politics for decades.

But there are no Latinos on the committee — in a city where the Latino population is approaching 30 percent.

And, even with 21 members, there is no one who wasn’t old enough to have voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976.

“I was the youngest member of the Charter Review Committee,” Sonia Taylor told the council last week, “and I am not young by a long shot.” Taylor is 54.

But even these City Hall insiders came to recognize that the time has come to let voters decide. After originally voting to oppose district elections, the committee changed its recommendation after hearing the impassioned appeals of residents attending a Saturday forum.

The flag-waving folks who favor district elections came ready to make their case on Tuesday night. They even brought along a guitarist to accompany an awkward rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

While three members of the council who had signaled their support of district elections stood and joined the chorus, four others sat glumly, not sure what to do. Maybe they don’t like singing in public.

On Tuesday, the council will renew this conversation, presumably setting the stage for charter amendments that will be presented to city voters in November.

Will the council put district elections on the ballot? Will a majority of the council endorse district elections? Stay tuned.

If district elections show up on the November ballot, some fear, interests dedicated to the status quo will spend whatever is necessary to defeat the measure.

It’s only my guess, but I think voters will support district elections — if only because they are embarrassed by the chronic imbalance of power at City Hall and the city’s long-time indifference to it.

It’s not acceptable that Santa Rosa remains a city divided between those who have more and those who have less, between those who have power at City Hall and those who do not.

There is no guarantee that district elections will lead to better government.

But it becomes impossible to argue that the current arrangement is OK. It’s not welcoming to people who don’t live in the fanciest neighborhoods, and it’s not smart for a city that wants to remain strong and unified.

(Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.)

9 Responses to “GOLIS: Time for district elections”

  1. No Easy Answer says:

    District elections are not the panacea that some here believe. You only have to look as far as the County Board of Supervisors to see an example of how district elections often end in five individuals serving five different masters. Each member comes to every issue representing a subset of the whole as opposed to looking at what is best for the county as a whole.

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  2. Kirstin says:

    Grey Whitmore,

    I notice that for medium cities (70K – 199K), at large-election is still the preferred method with 44%. Mixed-system, 25%, and district 31%.

    Although I think Santa Rosa would be best served by sticking with the preferre at-large system because that allows each voter to vote for EVERY council person; if we have to vote on a possible change, I would definitely prefer the SR city council propose a mixed system for Nov. ballot consideration over a regular district system because mixed would give the voters the ability to vote for more council members than a vanilla seven district system.

    I hope to hear some interesting discussion on the matter today at the council meeting.

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  3. Steveguy says:

    There is no hope, as Santa Rosans will always vote for the likes of Noreen and Marsha. Alas

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  4. Grey Whitmore says:

    I urge you all interested in this topic to read this link from the National League of Cities.

    I don’t think that district elections are the answer. A mixed system with both district and at-large representation seems to fit better with a city the size of Santa Rosa.


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  5. Vinyl Rules says:

    The time for district elections has come. Santa Rosa is not a cow-town anymore. It’s a major urban area with almost 200,000 residents. It’s the largest municipality along Highway 101 from San Francisco to Portland. It has distinct neighborhoods and constituencies. It’s time to start acting like the regional powerhouse that we are. There’s a reason why we don’t look like Healdsburg or Sonoma or even Petaluma. Santa Rosa is urbanized, and we need to start acting like it. We are not a small town anymore. I know that upsets people to hear, but the truth hurts. There’s no going back.

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  6. Chris says:

    I highly doubt the city will even implement it if the measure is passed. Remember when we as voters passed public financing? Yeah, it is in the charter, but the council refused to implement the change even though we voted for it.

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  7. Thomas Brooks says:

    Golis and his district election supporters want to balkanize Santa Rosa city council election. They want special interests electing their special or specific interest candidate.

    This is not good for the community or representative democracy in Santa Rosa. The city is too small for this type of ward type politics.

    I don’t think a Mexican district, a white district and a poor or rich district is in the interest of the voters and taxpayers.

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  8. J.R. Wirth says:

    “For 20 years, city councils have pledged to reach out to the unrepresented neighborhoods of the city, but nothing has changed.”

    This quote is what rhetorical diarrhea looks like, complete with kernels of corn.

    What are we talking about here? Lets say it, lets say the truth, R-O-S-E-L-A-N-D. That’s what we’re talking about. This is about the political machinery in Sonoma County (Democrats) wanting to create an ethnic fiefdom in a certain region of the city and county which is harder to do when elections are at large.

    By the way, is this area a net tax taker or contributor of our area? Does that still make them underrepresented?

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  9. Thorn says:

    Even though the current arrangement has flaws, that does not mean that district elections will be any better. It is probably even worse for the democracy of the city. There are, however, other options for reform that are being overlooked. The city could introduce a system of proportional representation.

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