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Political fight looms over Santa Rosa district elections

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The most sweeping change in years to the way Santa Rosa city councilmembers are selected heads to voters this fall, and rival campaigns already have begun marshalling their forces for and against the idea of electing City Council members by districts.

Both sides have formed committees to raise money for the coming fight, recruited former mayors to support their positions, and are benefitting from the talent of some of the city’s top political consultants.

“This has the chance to re-shape Santa Rosa politics in the near term and could be the biggest change in more than a generation,” said Sonoma State University Political Science Professor David McCuan.

How much money will be pumped into the efforts remains to be seen, with disclosures about the committees’ spending and donors yet to be filed.

But the first batch of filings offers glimpses of some of the key players in the debate, and through them a rough outline of the politics of the opposing camps is beginning to emerge.

A committee calling itself Santa Rosans for District Elections, Committee for Measure Q, filed organization papers with the city clerk Aug. 14. Alexander Mallone, former secretary/treasurer with the North Bay Labor Council, is listed as treasurer.

Mallone referred questions to Rick Meechan, an attorney and co-founder of the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County. He said the committee is made up of a small group of labor and neighborhood activists and social justice advocates.

District elections would give more power to neighborhoods by requiring city council members be elected from one of seven districts instead of the city as a whole, Meechan said. That would make city council members more accountable to voters and reduce the influence of money in local politics, he said.

“If we had district elections, we’d have more people power,” Meechan said.

Opponents contend that district elections will reduce voters’ representation on the council. Instead of seven council members listening to their concerns, they would have only one.

“I frankly think people are being sold a bill of goods,” said former mayor Janet Condron, treasurer of a committee calling itself the Protect our Right to Vote — No on Measure Q. “It’s not about one individual. It’s about seven people making decisions.”

Instead of focusing on the welfare of the entire city, district elections could usher in a form of political provincialism where councilmembers only look out for their neighborhoods, Condron said.

The group filed organization papers with the city clerk Aug. 20. The campaign is being run by long-time political consultant and lobbyist Herb Williams.

Both groups also filed ballot arguments.

“District elections will give all Santa Rosans representation on the City Council,” the argument in favor of Measure Q begins.

It goes on to state that in the past 30 years, only four city council members lived on the city’s west side. District elections, they claim, would increase diversity in city politics by making it possible for more people to serve.

Those who do will be more accountable to the voters will because “he or she will be familiar with your parks, potholes, local businesses and the safety of you and your family.”

The argument is signed by Sen. Noreen Evans, a former Santa Rosa councilwoman; Denise Hill, founding member of the Neighborhood Alliance of Santa Rosa; Tanya Narath, executive director of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Environment; Donna Zapata, president of the Latina Connection Consulting, and Jack Dupre, board member of Concerned Citizens of Santa Rosa and husband of councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre.

The argument against Measure Q states that district elections will accomplish none of the things supporters say it will.

“Advocates claim that elections would cost less. Not true!” according to the statement. “Candidate will feel compelled to out-spend their opponents regardless of district size.”

Claims that district elections will increase representation and increase the number of people who could run for office are also untrue, and the change has the potential for “pitting neighborhoods against each other,” the argument reads.

It is signed by three former Santa Rosa mayors, Condron, Donna Born, and Schuyler Jefferies.

The committee against Measure Q made one clear error in its argument, however, calling Santa Rosa a city of “only 14 square miles.” The correct figure is 41 square miles. Because the deadline had passed by the time the error was spotted, an attorney for the committee will need to petition a local judge to have it fixed, Williams explained.

Neither side expects a big-budget political battle. Meechan and Condron said they don’t expect to see significant funds flowing into their campaign. Meechan said the campaign will instead use neighborhood groups and social media to get its message out.

Williams declined to discuss the opposition’s strategy. “I’m not going to let the opposition read in the newspaper what kind of campaign I’m going to run,” he said.

McCuan says he personally favors district elections but thinks it’ll be a challenge to get them passed. Supporters would have to be well financed and organized enough to convince voters of the merits of the change in the face of an opposition campaign “sowing the seeds of doubt” about the dangers of a new political system, he said.

“Agitating for change that upsets the status quo political apple cart is really difficult,” McCuan said.





27 Responses to “Political fight looms over Santa Rosa district elections”

  1. Snarky says:

    Reality Check:

    Was it “one judge” ? Or a civil jury?

    Your “tort attorney” comment has zero to do with local government ownership of the sidewalks. They own = they pay.

    Your “cities will never maintain sidewalks …” has zero to do with local government ownership of the sidewalks. They own = they pay.

    I wonder if the Press Demo will allow this post to remain since they deleted this post once?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. SRCITIZEN says:

    “Cities, even with
    their duty to maintain the easement, can require the landowner to maintain the easement
    because the landowner has a duty to keep his property free from nuisance and in a
    reasonably safe condition.”

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  3. Reality Check says:

    Snarky,

    You assume one judge’s decision is automatically law of the land. Not quite.

    More important, tort attorneys for years have been trying to transfer liability for “slip and fall” cases from homeowners to the deeper pockets of taxpayers. You may think this is a good idea. I don’t.

    Cities will never maintain residential sidewalks as well as homeowners who use them. That’s obvious. The result will be another epidemic of lawsuits that fleece taxpayers.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  4. Snarky says:

    Reality:

    Allow me a point by point rebuttal to you.

    That sidewalks are owned by most cities “doesn’t change much… homeowners are still responsible for maintenance.”

    Review the litigation against the City of Los Angeles. The City lost. It was determined that the maintenance was the owners responsibility. The owner was the local government. Same as in Santa Rosa. The Court ordered the City to pay for repairs and the City, finally, agreed.

    “If Allan’s bill passes”:
    It merely clarifies and requires Cities to maintain their own sidewalk property.
    That city, like others, used lies and half truths to dump repair costs onto property owners.

    “What is happening to roads will happen to city sidewalks”:
    Its all about money management. The roads, and the sidewalks, should be in perfect repair. Anyone who claims that local and state government are handling public funds properly is a liar.

    You said, “At some point adults must be willing to maintain their neighborhoods.”
    You are putting the blame upon the private citizens. As the recently concluded court case against Los Angeles proved, the blame belongs upon local government for lies and half truths to trick private property owners into paying the costs rather than the owner of the sidewalks.. the local government.

    You said, “If they don’t want to maintain even the sidewalk in front of their own homes…” Again, review the succussful lawsuit against Los Angeles. THE SIDWALK IS OWNED BY THE CITY. THE CITY, INCLUDING SANTA ROSA, CAN PAY FOR WHAT IT OWNS. Its not about the private property owner. The court found that the local government was guilty of illegally dumping costs upon private citizens.

    You said, “Society is headed in the wrong direction.” It certainly is. And the greedy state and local government at fault for leading us that way. One example is cutting public education so that money can be diverted to pay for public pensions.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  5. Grapevines says:

    How in the world did a discussion about District Elections morph into who owns and repairs sidewalks??

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  6. Snarky says:

    Skippy:

    Rather than ask questions & pretending you know something, how about YOU present some facts?

    Tell us what your property tax bill says.

    And, tell us why Los Angeles is now under court order to repair sidewalks at its own expense?

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  7. Reality Check says:

    Snarky,

    I concede. In most cities, including SR, sidewalks are owned by the city. However, this doesn’t change much. The homeowner is responsible for maintenance, unless od course Allen’s bill passes. You may think that’s a good idea; I think it means that what is happening to our roads will now happen to sidewalks. Unless of course you’re willing to see taxes go up to pay for the new expense, which I doubt.

    At some point adults must be willing to maintain their neighborhoods. If they don’t want to maintain even the sidewalk in front of their own homes, society is headed in the wrong direction.

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  8. Skippy says:

    Who owns the land underneath the sidewalk?
    Who is taxed for those square feet?

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  9. Snarky says:

    The City of Los Angeles just LOST a lawsuit against it a few months ago.

    The litigation accused the City of Los Angeles of illegally dumping sidewalk repair costs upon adjacent property owners.

    As part of the settlement, The City of L.A. has agreed to make needed sidewalk repairs at its own expense because the City was found to be responsible for repairs. Property owners had been illegally billed for such repairs for decades.

    The same applies in Sonoma County and in the City of Santa Rosa. The city owns the sidewalks and is responsible for making repairs at its expense.

    Anyone who is disabled and finds navigating an out of repair sidewalk is entitled to litigate under the Federal Disability Act. Disabled includes wheelchair users, blind, and anyone who cannot walk safely without the use of canes, etc.

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  10. Snarky says:

    Reality:

    I neglected to mention how wrong you were.

    Property owners do NOT “own” the sidewalks.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  11. Snarky says:

    Vinyl Rules:

    I agree.

    District elections are going to happen either through the election process or through litigation.

    The good old boy network in Sonoma County is fraying. And they hate that like the children that they are.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5

  12. Reality Check says:

    Snarky,

    You are one angry dude, and also wrong. Homeowners own their sidewalks. They just don’t have complete control of the property. The city has in effect an easement requiring maintenance of a sidewalk, similar to the easements utility companies have for power, water and sewage. It’s tough to see how cities would work well without that kind of cooperation.

    For those who don’t like such impositions, and plenty of people don’t, they should live in an unincorporated part of the county. Then they can enjoy life with no sidewalks, storm drains, sewers, and the like. Different strokes for . . . .

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  13. Reality Check says:

    LBR,

    The road that leads to quotas is not one we want to take. The name of the mayor of Santa Rosa is Oliveras. Last year the chair of our BOS was Cabrillo. Does that look like evidence that Latinos are blocked from high positions in local government?

    In any case, we risk heading in a ugly direction. The implication is that our interests are so divided that we must be represented by someone from our own race and gender, and presumably age, etc. Nonsense. Local govt is about safe streets, well-maintained infrastructure, and sound finances. Are those things specific to any one group?

    The effort to divide everyone into a special-interest group must be fought.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

  14. Snarky says:

    Ya all notice in today’s Press Demo that the City of Santa Rosa is officially opposing a State law that would require that city to repair sidewalks rather than charge the adjacent homeowner for the repair?

    Yep.

    You see. The government is fast to impose sanctions upon you. But when it comes to maintaining what THEY own, well, its an entirely different matter.

    Much easier to steal the money from the property owners because property owners lack the time and funds to fight them.

    Message to the City of Santa Rosa:
    You can maintain and repair what YOU own. Its your property, so you say, so YOU can pay for the repairs.

    Stupid bureaucrats.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

  15. Skippy says:

    “How many minorities have we had on the council over the last 20 years?”

    How many have run?
    How many votes did they get?
    How many PD articles have been written implying that minorities need to be sensitive to the feelings of white folks?

    The one question I do not have is why you reject the legitimacy of the current system.
    The answer is obvious: if elected representatives don’t have the proper amount of melanin, they and the entire system are hopelessly racist.
    Hopelessly racist?
    That would describe LBR.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

  16. Lets be Reasonable says:

    Based on 2010 census, 40% of the population of Santa Rosa are minorities. How many minorities have we had on the council over the last 20 years?

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 8

  17. Grapevines says:

    Biggest “evils” that are rearing their ugly heads in district elections is that East Santa Rosa might have to come to grips with “Roseland” and “West Santa Rosa”

    Both are ugly zombies that have to be avoided at all costs.

    Just look at the political structure over the years. Less than 1/2 dozen of the people representing the city have come from the west side. And I would be surprised if Roseland has had more than 1 or 2 of those.

    Yup, the ugly specter of District elections has be keeping the East Siders awake at night.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 8

  18. Vinyl Rules says:

    All this whining about the perceived negatives of district elections are pointless. Based upon the demographics of the current and former councils, the situation is ripe for a lawsuit under provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act. It happened in Modesto, and it cost the city $3 million. Why tempt fate and invite a lawsuit that would almost surely succeed? In reality, Santa Rosa has no choice but to make district elections. And that’s purely from a financial standpoint. Putting aside all the moral and social arguments, does anyone want Santa Rosa to lose millions to lawsuit that could have been easily avoided? District elections are coming one way or another. So this is the real choice; would voters rather have a say, or should we just essentially pay a judge millions of dollars to do it for us? Easy choice in my book.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 12

  19. Beef King says:

    District elections are an equal corruption opportunity provider.
    District elections will break the grip of the ruling elite of Santa Rosa, which has produced a dysfunctional city through progressivism and crony capitalism.
    District elections create an opportunity for non-aligned leadership.
    Santa Rosa needs a new outlook and fast because it is an unqualified mess.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 11

  20. Reality Check says:

    Yes, I think a hybrid system is a good compromise that captures to benefits of both approaches. Four members elected from districts, 3 at-large.

    Unfortunately, we are going to get all-district elections, and the city will not be better for it.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 9

  21. Kay Tokerud says:

    Kirsten pretty much nailed it, one vote every four years versus 3 or 4 votes every two years. That’s one-seventh as many choices made by the voters. Our City is too small to attempt district elections. We do not have seven distinct areas in Santa Rosa but rather are one small city where issues affect most of the people. Fights over who should get funding or whatever could consume most of the time and energy of our elected council members instead of working to improve the overall conditions of Santa Rosa. I’m a big NO on district elections.

    Thumb up 16 Thumb down 15

  22. Kirstin says:

    @ Grey Whitmore, what isn’t very hysterical is the city council having zero discussion about other possibilities besides all-out district elections. I wrote at the time about how disappointed I was at that sad lack.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 3

  23. Grey Whitmore says:

    It’s hysterical to watch the lack of knowledge around the history of at large elections in municipal government.

    The Progressive Era of 1890 to 1920 work hard to foster the adoption of at large elections as a way to prevent corruption.

    One only has to do a Google search to find extensive information on this issue.

    A more logical system for Santa Rosa is a hybrid system of both district and at large. This will empower neighborhoods but also lessen the effects of balkanization.

    Only time will tell.

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  24. Dan J Drummond says:

    District elections seem more equal, more democratic.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 19

  25. From what I can tell, Santa Rosa has a dearth of qualified public officials as it is. If they can’t find 7 competent council members from a pool of only 167,815 people, how can they possibly divide the city into 7 districts with 1/7 the talent pool per district, and hope for anything but 7 mental dwarves engaging in an endless series of petty turf wars?

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 11

  26. Jim Bennett says:

    Question: Why set out to transform our governmental model. The most successful, admired framework ever conceived?

    Answer: Because we’re currently in an insidious take down.

    Why reinvent the wheels of oppression?

    Go with proven plays that work.

    -Empower an alphabet of ‘councils’ and agencies to synthesize consensus. Like COG: Council Of Governments.
    -Socially engineer resentment between haves/have nots (devide and conquer).

    Hell, just adopt the whole Soviet model of governence. Regionalism by design provides for disenfranchised citizens…
    THAT’S THE WHOLE IDEA!

    This is another charade to carry out treasonous directive, creating an illusion that it’s the people’s idea.

    Employ Hegel’s playbook: create ‘problems’, contrived as an instrument to impose ‘solutions’.

    Stick to your oath, adhere to the rule book (the Constitution), respect our Property Rights. Set the Free Market free. Leave us alone, quit working for a foreign NGO, find some honor.

    Don’t fix what isn’t broken, the system isn’t broken. Our adherence to it is.

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  27. Kirstin says:

    I will repeat the points I offered earlier.

    DISTRICT ELECTIONS ARE A BAD IDEA FOR SANTA ROSA! HERE’S WHY:

    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 stay united.

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