By PETE GOLIS
PRESS DEMOCRAT COLUMNIST
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)