By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa voters will decide Nov. 6 whether or not to enact the most sweeping change to the city’s political landscape in generations.
Measure Q would require the city to switch from at-large elections, in which City Council members are elected city-wide, to district elections, in which each council
member would represent one of seven sections of the city.
Sounds simple. Yet the issue is one of the most complicated and contentious that local voters ever have been asked to consider.
“It’s a change to the foundation and system of how the city operates and governs itself, which is a much deeper question than most ballot measures,” said Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation, which studied the issue for the city.
For more than 30 years city residents have debated whether district elections would help heal a city long divided politically, racially and geographically. City politics long have been dominated by those from the wealthier east — and particularly northeast — parts of the city. The west and southeast sections have significantly higher Latino populations than the northeast and are separated from the rest of the city by Highway 101 and the Santa Rosa Plaza mall.
In the past 30 years, and perhaps historically, only two members of the council have been identified as racial or ethnic minorities.
The matter of district elections was the most controversial and emotional subjects this year taken up by the city’s 21-member Charter Review Committee, which is revived once a decade to consider potential revisions to the city bylaws.
Two previous committees had rejected putting district elections on the ballot, but in June the City Council unanimously accepted the current committee’s recommendation to put the issue before voters.
Despite the long history, the issue remains poorly understood by most voters, in part because the opposing campaigns are making contradictory claims on nearly every issue.
Supporters argue that district elections can help unify the city because council members would work together better when they aren’t competing with each other for votes.
Opponents claim the opposite, that creating districts would balkanize the community and make council members less focused on what’s best for the city as a whole.
The two sides also starkly disagree on whether district elections would reduce the cost of campaigns, increase diversity on the council, or are needed to stave off the threat of lawsuits alleging a discriminatory political framework.
One point of consensus, however, is that district elections would dramatically transform Santa Rosa politics.
“This decision will impact just about everything that comes before the City Council,” Johnson said. “It will affect the City Council for probably the rest of the city’s history.”
Big enough for districts?
Whether Santa Rosa is big enough to need or benefit from districts elections is one of the key issues in the debate.
Supporters insist the city, with a 2010 population of just under 168,000, is so big that City Council members can’t fully grasp the breadth of issues facing all its diverse neighborhoods and be responsive to all its residents.
They note that candidates can find it difficult to walk the city’s 42 square miles and instead rely on mail campaign literature to reach potential voters. This increases campaign costs and makes candidates more beholden to deep-pocketed special interests, they say.
“Santa Rosa is too large of a city to be able to function with the current system,” said Magdalena Ridley, an activist in favor of Measure Q who grew up in Roseland.
She says Santa Rosa is “not a tiny little cow town anymore” but remains tied to a “really provincial style of politics.”
Measure Q would create districts that are more manageable, thus increasing the candidates’ understanding of and responsiveness to the people they represent. This would reduce the cost of campaigns and make it easier for a greater diversity of people to have the chance to serve, supporters say.
The most important thing about democracy is we get to know our leaders,” said Elaine Holtz, a member of the city’s Community Advisory Board who lives in the city’s northwest. “When you get to know who you’re voting for, when that person gets into office you have somebody who actually represents you.”
Opponents say Santa Rosa may be approaching the size of cities that typically begin to shift to district elections, but isn’t there yet.
“All of the demographers say you don’t have an issue here because you’re not big enough,” said political consultant Herb Williams, who is helping run the campaign against Measure Q.
He points to the report Johnson prepared for the Charter Review Committee. It showed that 29 of the state’s 482 cities, or 6 percent, use district elections. Most of the state’s largest cities, like Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, use a district system.
Cities tend to begin considering district elections when they get to be between 185,000 and 225,000 residents, the report found. Smaller cities have switched to districts, but they usually have far higher Hispanic populations, such as Salinas, which has 150,000 residents, 75 percent of whom are Hispanic, according to 2010 census figures.
Of Santa Rosa’s 168,000 residents in 2010, 28.6 percent were Hispanics, a 14 percent increase over the prior decade but still lower than most other cities with district elections, the report noted.
“With 1 percent growth per year, it’ll be a while” before the city is big enough to need district elections, Williams said.
The ballot argument against Measure Q urges people to “keep the small-town feel of our city” by voting against districts.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares, the city’s first Latino councilmember, came out strongly against district elections last week at a council candidate’s forum. He said he was doing so because district elections would “take away 85 percent” of people’s council votes.
Currently, during a four-year cycle, residents can cast votes for all seven council members. Four seats are up this year and three will be up two years later, giving voters a total of seven votes.
Under Measure Q, however, the city would be divided into seven districts and, much like the county Board of Supervisors, residents of each district would get to vote once every four years for someone who lives in the district to represent their section of the city.
They would not be able to vote for the candidates in the six other districts. That reduction of seven votes to one is what opponents of Measure Q supports say they mean by the campaign slogan “protect your vote.”
“You’ll make people less engaged by only allowing them to vote once every four years,” said retired city employee and union leader Tony Alvernaz, who has a large Not on Q sign in his front yard. “That doesn’t seem very democratic to me.”
The number of votes may go down, but the influence of the vote goes up, said campaign consultant Terry Price.
Over the years, Williams and the candidates he works with tend to be supported by business and development interests, while Price has worked with candidates more allied with environmental and neighborhood groups.
Price said he thinks the “protect your vote” slogan is deceptive because it “tries to frighten people into thinking they are losing something when they are not.”
Voters in district elections, because their votes are grouped in smaller pools, would get more direct representation, Price said. “Their vote actually becomes more meaningful in district elections,” Price said.
The “protect your vote” message is aimed directly at the residents of the east side of Santa Rosa, who have long dominated city politics, and taps into their fears they would lose that power under district elections, he said.
In the past 30 years, only four members of the City Council have been from the west side of Highway 101, according to City Hall records. No one has ever been elected from the southwest section of town.
District elections by definition would create far greater geographic diversity on the council. The precise boundaries would be drawn after the election, but future councils would be guaranteed to have representatives from various parts of the city.
But would it increase the council’s economic or racial diversity?
Those are harder questions to answer. Supporters argue that campaign costs, especially the expense of mailing literature to potential voters, will be far lower in districts, making it easier for regular folks to serve.
“The amount of money it takes to run a campaign is prohibitive for most people who are not of means or are not supported by wealthy donors, i.e., the business community,” Price said, noting that candidates often spend $50,000 or more to get elected.
This historically has resulted in “big, deep-pocketed power brokers controlling City Hall,” Price said.
Williams said that total spending won’t drop because business, union and environmental groups will still pump the money into the various races, and candidates will find ways to spend it.
“To hold onto their votes, the special interests on each side will spend whatever they need to spend to secure their elections,” he said.
Lowering campaign costs won’t necessarily entice people to serve in a job that takes a big time commitment and pays $9,600 per year plus health benefits.
“The time commitment to run and to serve isn’t going to get less,” Alvernaz said. It’s almost a full-time job.”
Bigger barriers include being unable to take time off work or needing to raise children, Alvernaz said. Two city council candidates with young children, Mike Cook and Shaan Vandenburg, dropped out of this year’s council race citing in part family commitments.
Opponents also dispute whether diversity is really an issue, noting that city councils of the years have included one African American, one Latino, a gay person and numerous women.
“I’m not seeing what it is they are trying to fix,” Alvernaz said.
Collaboration or factionalism?
Whether council members elected from districts would work better together or further divide the body remains one of the most speculative arguments made by either side.
Supporters argue that the core problem on the council is that members are at odds so often because they’re essentially competing for reelection.
“The political reality is if they like their jobs and they want to keep them, they’re jockeying for the same votes,” says former Sonoma County Counsel Steven Woodside. “It’s not helpful for consensus building.”
People would be more likely to work with one another if they didn’t campaign against each other and aren’t looking to score political points against fellow council members, supporters contend.
Many cite the five-member Board of Supervisors as an example of how members elected from districts can hold different political views but work well together.
Three of the four supervisors who represent portions of Santa Rosa, Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire, have endorsed district elections.
“Who gets along better? The Board of Supervisors or our City Council. Come on now,” said Ridley, the Measure Q proponent from Roseland.
Opponents say city council members from districts would only be worried about their neighborhoods, making them less inclined to do the right thing for the city as a whole.There is some evidence that the focus of councils changes after district elections, with smaller issues such as potholes getting more attention, said Johnson, the consultant.
He said that can be at the expense of larger projects that might benefit the city as a whole. If those projects have “disproportionate negative impacts” on certain neighborhoods, such as traffic or noise, they certainly can find “significantly higher hurdles” in cities with districts, he said.