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.