COURSEY: Measure Q a dart to the heart of the status quo
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:34 p.m.
The campaign signs opposing Santa Rosa's Measure Q urge voters to “Protect Your Vote.”
They'd be more accurate if they said, “Protect the Status Quo.”
That's what Measure Q is all about. The issue of district elections in Santa Rosa is a matter of answering a simple question: Do you like the way things work at City Hall?
If your answer is “yes,” vote no on Measure Q. If you see no reason to change the political equation in Santa Rosa, if you see no need to tip the balance of power that has been in place for at least the past 30 years, then there's no reason to support district elections for city council members.
If, however, you believe that Santa Rosa could benefit from a shake-up in the either/or politics that have created a long-running stalemate on the council and a resulting inertia in city government, you should consider voting in favor of Measure Q. A “yes” vote is a dart to the heart of the status quo.
Let's be clear: Measure Q does not guarantee positive changes at City Hall. But it does guarantee changes, and it will remedy a problem that has been clearly documented and identified as a serious concern in city politics for the past two decades.
That problem is virtually all of the people who serve on the city council come from one section of town. And that geographic homogeneity has been accompanied by lack of diversity in council members' ethnicity, economic status and political views.
Actually, there has been a little bit of diversity in the latter. For the past 20 years, about half of the council has come from one side of the political spectrum, and about half has come from the other.
But there are more than two political views in Santa Rosa, just as there is more than one neighborhood, more than one ethnic group and more than one economic status.
Measure Q may not be the only way to increase the diversity of the council, but it the only way that is on the ballot. And it is the way that has been recommended for nearly two decades by members of three separate committees charged with finding ways to improve city government.
Of course, those committees — each of which reflected the biases of the city council that appointed them — were evenly divided on the issue. Which is why, finally, the question will be decided by the voters on Nov. 6.
If approved, Measure Q would require that Santa Rosa be divided into seven districts, just as California is divided into Congressional districts, Sonoma County is divided into Board of Supervisors districts and the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees and Sonoma County Board of Education are divided into districts. Santa Rosa would be the 30th California city to use district elections.
Voters in each district would elect a single candidate — a resident of that district — to represent them on the city council.
For years, opponents have argued that dividing the city into districts would “balkanize” the city council. But the council already is sharply polarized, and has been for years, with the majority teetering back and forth between a business-friendly faction backed by the Chamber of Commerce, real estate and development interests and an environmental-leaning faction backed by neighborhood groups and unions.
If you're not in one of those camps, who represents you on the council?
Opponents this fall have changed the focus of their campaign against district elections. Instead of talking about “balkanization,” they argue that Measure Q would dilute residents' voting power by requiring them to give up 85 percent of their council votes. Instead of having the opportunity to vote seven times for at-large council members in a four-year period, each resident could vote only once every four years to elect a council member from his or her district.
The math is correct, but the conclusion is not. With district representation, every resident would have a council member specifically accountable to their needs, their interests, their concerns. Today, if you have a pothole in front of your house or a neighboring property proposed for development, which council member do you call? Which one drives on the same streets you do or sends his kids to school with yours? Which one answers to you and your neighbors?
The current members of the council no doubt would say, “I do. We all do.” But the fact is, they each represent a city of nearly 170,000 people, and what's happening on your block rarely rises to the top of their agenda. They also (though they will deny it) are divided into two factions that are constantly bickering with each other and jockeying for advantage, which sometimes seems to take precedent over dealing with the small issues that affect the majority of residents who really don't care about the success or failure of those political camps.
Will district elections fix these problems? No one can know for sure. But there is no doubt that the approval of Measure Q will add geographic diversity to the council, will force changes in the way council members campaign and get elected, will shake up the status quo in Santa Rosa politics.
Does anyone else think that's a good idea?
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.
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