WatchSonoma Watch

Santa Rosa moves closer to vote on district elections


Santa Rosa voters may get to decide in November whether they want to elect their City Council representatives by districts rather than citywide.

City Council members expressed support Tuesday for the recommendations of the 21-member Charter Review Committee, including putting district elections before voters in the fall.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t move forward with the committee’s recommendations,” Mayor Ernesto Olivares said.

Mike Senneff, middle, chairman of Santa Rosa's 21-member Charter Review Committee, listens with his colleagues to Santa Rosa citizens lay out their viewpoints earlier this year on district elections for the city's seven council members. (Kent Porter / PD)

The move sets the stage for a Nov. 6 vote which, if approved, could lead to the first-ever City Council election by districts in 2014.

Supporters of district elections packed the City Council chambers, with dozens holding signs saying “District Elections. Let the voters decide.” Many pushed for a “simple seven” format with seven council members elected from seven districts and a mayor named from their ranks.

Kyra Janssen, 74, said she attended the charter review meetings, studied the district elections issue closely and concluded that while it is not a “silver bullet,” it’s preferable given the changing face of Santa Rosa.

“District elections looks to the future rather than to the past,” Janssen said.

One of the main arguments for district elections has long been that it would broaden diversity in local politics, which has historically been controlled by residents from the wealthier and whiter northeast section of the city. All seven city council members live in the northeast.

Anne Seeley, of Concerned Citizens of Santa Rosa, said there would be several other benefits to district elections, including reducing the costs of political campaigns and thereby allowing people of more modest means to serve; reduced election costs for the city; and making it easier for voters get to know their elected representatives.

“We think it really is the time to give your constituents the choice in this matter,” Seeley said.

Other supporters noted that studies show district elections increase voter participation. Others claimed district elections make sense given the city’s emphasis on strong, distinct neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most unexpected testimony was from David Walls of the North Bay Organizing Project, who linked district elections to the civil rights struggle by invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“Today we say let freedom ring in Santa Rosa!” Wall said.

He then led the chamber, accompanied by a guitarist, in a nearly standing-room-only rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

Not everyone claimed district elections would improve the city’s politics.

World War II veteran Arthur Koenig, 85, said he’d voted in every City Council election for the past 50 years and never once voted for someone because of where they lived, but rather did so based on the positions they took.

“Don’t vote for the seven districts because we’re going to have (separation) instead of continuity within our city,” Koenig said.

The council didn’t make a final decision. It accepted the report of the committee and instructed City Attorney Caroline Fowler to return with more information about the three significant items being recommended: district elections, setting clearer ground rules for the arbitration of public safety contract disputes, and allowing so-called design-build city government projects, which are designed and constructed by the same contractor.

The council has until Aug. 10 to tell the county registrar of voters what measures it wants on the ballot. Each measure will cost the city $75,000. Several minor ones many be included in a “cleanup” ballot measure.

Fowler said that it would be difficult to establish district boundaries before the election and thus let the voters approve them.

An alternative would be to simply ask voters whether they support switching to electing all seven council members by district. If the measure passed, the council could hold public hearings to decide what the boundaries of the districts would be, and approve them in time for the 2014 election.

Committee member Bill Carle, an attorney who served on the previous charter review panel 10 years ago, said he wasn’t in favor of them then but is now because of the passage of the California Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law in 2002.

He said he worried that the city might be in violation of the act because the city may have areas of “racially polarized voting.” This could lead to expensive litigation that he said he’d prefer to avoid.

“I don’t want to spend millions of dollars in lawsuits down the line. I want to spend that on city services, Carle said.

He urged the city to hire a consultant to determine if the city is in violation of the act before November.

“If in fact those patterns exist, there ought to nobody who votes against district elections, because it would be fiscally irresponsible,” Carle said.

4 Responses to “Santa Rosa moves closer to vote on district elections”

  1. Jim Bennett says:

    Kirstin, worthy of framing.

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  2. Reality Check says:

    The assertion that allegedly justifies distric elections is the imbalance in council membership. Absent a demographically representative body–presumably including geography, race, gender, age–we are not being well represented.

    The underlying assumption is that people differ significantly in what they want from local govt. Is that so? Do we want different levels of police and fire protection, or parks, based on where we live or our gender or race? I don’t know this to be so. And if distric proponents have any evidence to support their assertion, they’ve done a good job in keeping a secret.

    This suggests that we all–based on age, race, etc.–differ fundamentally. We share common interests only within our own demographic class. What a bleak outlook on the human condition.

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  3. Kirstin says:


    LESS CHOICE – Now each of us votes for seven City Council members, and we do so for a portion of them every two years. Under district elections we each would vote for one — every four years. That means we would have no say on six of the seven members, and would vote less often. That spells disenfranchisement of the voters — ALL voters in Santa Rosa.

    ANTI-NEIGHBORHOOD – Neighborhood interests would be shortchanged under district elections. A Council majority could dismiss or ignore neighborhood concerns outside their districts without being held accountable to the voters. District elections will undermine neighborhoods rather than better empower and enhance them.

    DIVISIVENESS – We should not create a Balkanized city. Most important issues impact everyone. We need all seven Councilmembers committed to working for common purpose on issues such as creating the best locality for jobs, road maintenance, and maintaining efficient public services such as public buses, public utilities, etc..

    PORK BARREL/SPECIAL INTEREST POLITICS – District horse trading can shut out residents with community wide concerns.

    LACK OF CANDIDATES – The best candidates might not always live in seven separate districts.

    ILLOGICAL BOUNDARIES – Santa Rosa contains far more neighborhoods than seven, so any way that seven districts are carved will still lump in some neighborhoods with little in common and will divide areas with natural commonalities.

    So, District elections will fragment our City, reduce voter choice, and shortchange both neighborhoods and city-wide interests. Santa Rosa is one community. Let’s Keep It Together.

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  4. Richard James Emory says:

    If you think Chicago type politics with ward bosses and healers is great, you will vote for district elections in Santa Rosa.

    District elections will cement special interest group politics in this city and have city council members being elected, thinking and acting only for their little district instead of the city as a whole.

    Another terrible idea brought to you by those who like ward politics and all that goes with that concept.

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