WatchSonoma Watch

GOLIS: Will Santa Rosa debate be divisive?


Looking back now, we can see that the fight over district elections was inevitable. For 20 years, Santa Rosa city officials talked about reaching out to neighborhoods beyond the upscale precincts of the northeast.

But nothing changed. Whether City Hall insiders were unable or unwilling to share power, each new city government looked pretty much like the last city government. Think older, whiter and living in a handful of privileged neighborhoods.

Pete Golis.

And so the debate over Measure Q begins.

“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,” Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan told Staff Writer Kevin McCallum.

Much is riding on the outcome — and not just because district elections would transform city politics.

Unless people on both sides of the issue are mindful of what they say and do, a debate that could involve neighborhood rivalries, ethnicity and income has the potential to leave resentments that linger long after the election is decided.

Because disagreeing is what they do best, the usual factions are choosing sides again. With some exceptions, folks from the so-called progressive, pro-environment faction support district elections, and folks from the so-called pro-business faction oppose district elections.

Long ago and far away, these two groups battled over major development projects. Now they just battle because they can, because it is set in their minds that the other side would harm Santa Rosa.

What they don’t acknowledge is that the city has been harmed by its reputation as that place in Northern California where a divided council lives in a permanent state of disharmony. (With rival Santa Rosa council members campaigning for the Board of Supervisors, it will be interesting to see whether the same divisive politics is exported to county government.)

Even the composition of the latest charter review committee confirmed a City Council dominated by factions living in cocoons of their own making. Fearing the other side might gain an advantage, each packed the committee with its friends.

If you were under 54 years of age or if you were Latino, you were not welcome. Three-quarters of the committee members also came from the same northeast neighborhoods that have controlled city government for too long.

To its credit, the charter review committee at least understood that the city couldn’t wait another 10 years before granting voters the opportunity to decide the issue.

For a long time, I thought district elections were an invitation to logrolling and political infighting among neighborhoods — without any guarantee that city government would be improved.

But years of dithering have transformed district elections into an uncertain idea whose time has come, if only because 20 years is long enough to wait, and doing nothing for another decade is not an option.

For people who like the status quo, it is pleasant to believe that everything is hunky-dory in Santa Rosa.

It isn’t. Santa Rosa is at risk of becoming a city divided, east and west, between haves and have nots, between Anglos and Latinos, between young and old.

Santa Rosa is already a city in which an aging cadre of community leaders has done too little to nurture the next generation of leaders.

It’s not acceptable that Latino residents, soon 30 percent of the population, can’t find places at the table.

It’s also not smart. A civil rights lawsuit, citing the imbalance of representation in city government, could be costly to defend and harmful to the city’s reputation.

The history that has played out in other cities suggests inertia and complacency will lead to distrust, bitterness and divisions that will never be repaired.

The last 20 years did bring one change to city government. The council was expanded from five to seven members, ostensibly to make the council more representative of the entire city.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. (The most noticeable difference may be that meetings last longer because seven people require more time to talk than five people do.)

After the experiment failed, the charter review committee could have proposed a return to a five-member council, but it didn’t.

Politics being politics, no one wanted to reduce seven seats to five. If it were nine seats, no one would want to reduce nine seats to seven. And so on.

Seven members or five? Elected at large or elected by district? People disagree about which will work best.

Whatever the outcome, partisans who care about the future of their city will resist the temptation to play one neighborhood against another, or one group of people against another.

In trying to figure out how to create a better future for all, Santa Rosans need to watch out that they don’t create a city more divided and angry.

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

19 Responses to “GOLIS: Will Santa Rosa debate be divisive?”

  1. MC Reasonable says:

    Of course the west side should be represented. Its actually a really nice place to live, I live here and I think your 30 percent latino is incorrect, it looks much more like maybe 60% but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the neighborhoods on the west side have a voice. Its not to take something away from fountain-grove or the east side its just true representation of our city. Yes, we live in a city!!! What is the fear here?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  2. Ken S. says:

    “There’s nothing worse for quality of life in a city when poor people have more voice in government. Poor people are ignorant, that’s why they’re poor.”

    Wow. What a nasty, bitter thing to say. How unhappy are you?

    “Three words, Mayor Ernesto Olivares.”

    Yeah, see how greedy those Latinos are? You give them a mayor who doesn’t upset or scare us, and they want more! Who do they think they are? We don’t even criticize the guy who retired at 50 with a $132k pension. See how we give give and give?

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  3. Reality Check says:


    Cities are always open to lawsuits if one group or another is “underrepresented.” It’s a never ending problem until we change our thinking about race and representation.

    I’d settle for a hybrid system as a reasonable compromise. It’s the argument that district proponents make that riles me up. Sorry.

    If you want to change the economic dynamic of who sits on the council, then start paying a living wage. That’s problem #1. But it leads to other problems, so I have mixed feelings. Last post.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  4. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – I thought quotas were ruled unconstitutional? It is not even necessarily about race, but rather economic situation. A section of town is not being represented. I’m also concerned that the City is leaving itself open to a lawsuit.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  5. Reality Check says:


    The argument for district elections is based almost entirely on the perceived under representation of a particular ethnic group that needs to be corrected. And Oliveras doesn’t count; he lives on the white side of town. This may not be a formal call for a hard quota, but it’s big step in that direction.

    In 1964, Hubert Humphrey, senate floor leader for the civil rights bill, vociferously argued that the law wouldn’t lead to quotas. I’m sure he meant what he said, but history has proven him wrong.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  6. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – you have what I’m saying wrong. I’m not talking about quotas. And in regards to Olivares, I’m saying that his background is fairly unique – that most Hispanics on the west side would not be able to effectively run for council because of the money needed. By creating district elections, it becomes less expensive to run, and who you are and who knows you in your community become more important.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  7. Reality Check says:


    So, it isn’t good enough that Oliveras is Latino, he must be the right kind. This gets complicated. And ugly.

    I believe you ignore an important distinction. Committees in local government are made up of volunteers. There hasn’t been one word indicating that any minority who volunteered to serve on a committee was told they weren’t welcome or denied an opportunity to serve on one. Not one. Yet, that is what Golis asserted. Outrageous.

    Yours is a straightforward quota argument. If there are consistently and significantly less than 58% whites on an NBA basketball team, racism must be the reason. Oops. No I guess not. Yes, it’s a silly argument, yours too.

    Worse, it corrodes what America should be about. Merit. Tell me, what do you do about the disproportionate number of Asians and Jews in America’s elite colleges? Would you kick them out to make room for the right number of whites, blacks, and Latinos?

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5

  8. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – Why go so far back, when there are more recent examples? Libya under Qaddafi, Iraq under Hussein, Syria under Assad…all situations where one subgroup controls government.
    Come on, things are better than they were a few decades ago, but racism isn’t dead. People vote for those they identify with. Wealthy whites have not a clue what it is like to be poor and/or a minority, so how do you expect fair representation? Someone pointed out that Olivares is mayor, so the current system works. He is a special case. He was a cop and has that as a political base. He is also relatively wealthy, being able to retire on one of those cushy public pensions. He also lives in a mostly white neighborhood. He may have received Hispanic votes, but I bet he didn’t get much in the way of monetary support from the west side of town.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  9. Reality Check says:

    “The California Voting Rights Act (Elections Code 14025-14032) prohibits at-large elections . . . ”

    Ah, one more California law based on race, that people from one race can’t be represented by someone from another. Scary. We need to reread a history of the 30s and 40s to see where this leads.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  10. Lets be Reasonable says:

    The California Voting Rights Act (Elections Code 14025-14032) prohibits at-large elections, in which voters of the entire jurisdiction elect members of the governing board, when it can be shown that such elections dilute or abridge the rights of voters who are members of a protected class. (Thank You Laura Gonzalez)
    As Mr. Golis mentioned, Santa Rosa is almost 30% Hispanic, and according to the 2010 Census the City is over 40% Minority. Hispanics are concentrated west of Hwy 101 and also south of Hwy 12 between Hwy 101 and Farmers Ln. Many of the census groups in these areas are majority Hispanic, while much of the remainder of the City has less than 10% Hispanic. Santa Rosa is racially divided, and therefore in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Unless the City wants a lawsuit, it needs to switch to district elections.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 10

  11. steve humphrey says:

    The accusations of Golis sound more like cocktail party chatter instead of professional journalism. His oppinion and agenda seems obvious… it’s just the backup to his accusations we are missing.
    There is little to gain, and much to risk, by having district elections in a city like Santa Rosa. Like our state government officials, while pushing for their own districts self interest and thus their own personal perpetuation in office, seem to achieve little for the public good, it will become for Santa Rosa if district elections are held.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  12. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Terry-Ernesto doesn’t represent his fellow hispanics. He’s squarely in the pocket of the safety unions and the big businesses in Santa Rosa. He’s proven this over and over again along with Sawyer.

    If anything, it’s the progressives that represent the latino population and who want them to have a real seat at the table. Mexicans were here before this state became a state. They were here before the influx of whites. They belong here.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  13. Skippy says:

    Racism. The one word Liberals use to describe every disagreement with their policies.
    All dissenting Americans should be proud to be referred to as racists.
    Racist today means “disagrees with Liberals”.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 6

  14. Vinyl Rules says:

    Establishing district elections will be an important step toward acknowledging what Santa Rosa really is; a major metropolitan area. It’s not a cowtown anymore. Opponents contend that districts will lead to councilmembers who care more about their neighborhood than the city. That’s the whole point! Their districts concerns are primary, the city’s as a whole are secondary. That’s how representation works. That doesn’t mean they won’t care what happens on the other side of town. We all know that what happens in Roseland or Rincon Valley can affect any other part of Santa Rosa. Either way, the choice will be up to the citizens of this town. May they choose wisely.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 11

  15. Thorn says:

    Indeed a lot of unwarranted claims float about the current political composition in Santa Rosa. It is assumed that an area of the city does not have representation of no council member reside there, but that is not true.
    Council members elected at-large represent at large, unless you can show some evidence that certain neighborhoods have been underfunded or otherwise discriminated against. I have not even seen an attempt at showing any evidence of that.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 5

  16. Andy Trout says:

    Spoken like the true leftist you are Golis. You paint the residents of Santa Rosa as racists, old whites who have held power too long.

    Well, you little answer is to further divide this community and this city into little political power precincts where the special interests can elect their own politician to represent their special interest.

    Santa Rosa isn’t Chicago and ward politics have no place here.

    Santa Rosa’s city council is currently left leaning and too controlled by public unions. These are not good things. They have led us to huge employee pension unfunded deficits and too much union influence in what the council does at the expense of the citizens who pay the bills.

    The city council doesn’t have to listen to the public and most often they don’t. Just attend a council meeting if you doubt me.

    But, they do have to listen to the public unions because they have to bargin with them as equals. This is an imbalance that will not be fixed if the city divides up into districts. It will only increase public union power.

    Districts are undemocratic and bad for Santa Rosa no matter what you say Golis.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 6

  17. Terry says:

    Golis: “It’s not acceptable that Latino residents, soon 30 percent of the population, can’t find places at the table.” Three words, Mayor Ernesto Olivares. I am beginning to think that all reason, logic and even the press suspend all for the sake of pushing an agenda. District elections solve nothing. Only a cultural shift in our pursuit to solve problems will do that. OK, I said more than three words, but I hope you get my point.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 6

  18. Reality Check says:

    Of course the issue will be divisive. Is not that how Golis defines it?

    “If you were under 54 years of age or if you were Latino, you were not welcome.” That quote is bad enough for being intentionally inflammatory. Worse, it’s not true. It screams for a source, yet none is offered. Absent a supporting rationale, it’s simply libelous. Apparently, all sides on the council are racists.

    The reality is that most of committees that populate city government are made up of volunteers. They are a coalition of the willing. Show up and you’ll be put on something. Ably serve on a few and you’ll be appointed to others.

    The crowd over age 54 and white votes at a much higher percentage than 20-somethings or Latinos. Might these same people be more likely to volunteer for committees? Yeah, I think so. That people with time to serve on committees tend to dominate shouldn’t be surprising. Is it evidence of racism or that any group isn’t welcome? No.

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 8

  19. J.R. Wirth says:

    There’s nothing worse for quality of life in a city when poor people have more voice in government. Poor people are ignorant, that’s why they’re poor. If you support district elections you’re saying “I want ignorant people to have more of a say in how things are run.”

    So what do these poor people do? They elect ward politicians like Villaragossa in LA. District elections will provide us with a city council that is composed of politicians who tell their voters that their lives suck because whitie in Fountaingrove is hoarding all the money, and (insert politician) take a stick to him like a pinata so you can get some of the candy.

    They’ll never tell their constituents that whitie in Fountaingrove is paying most of the bills around here.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

Leave a Reply