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Who should be appointed to fill the vacant seat on the Santa Rosa City Council?

Environmentalists might argue the seat should go to an environmentalist. Business people will say that a backer of economic development should get the job. One camp will push for an appointee that will tip the council majority to the left, the other will want to use the appointment to add some weight on the right-hand side of the scale.

Regardless, the most likely outcome is that we will end up with a City Council that looks and acts a lot like the City Council has looked and acted for decades.

Unless our council members put aside their own interests and do something completely different.

It's impossible at this point to know who will be in the pool of potential appointees. The application process opens Thursday and continues though Jan. 22, and any city resident able to collect 20 signatures of support and willing to serve as a dart board for critics is eligible to apply.

But it's safe to say that the pool will include what we might as well call "the usual suspects."

These are the people who already have close ties either to sitting council members (such as appointees to any of the city's many boards and commissions) or to the interest groups that spend a lot of time and money trying to influence city government.

The temptation will be for the council to tap one of these folks for the appointment. After all, the argument goes, the new council member should be someone with experience in city government and a track record of involvement with the issues that come before the council.

But why — other than making the choice more comfortable for the sitting six council members — are those things important? Why not choose someone who isn't already entrenched in the city bureaucracy or who hasn't already chosen a side of the ideological divide of city politics?

Santa Rosa voters in November rejected Measure Q, which would have created a system for district elections in Santa Rosa. But while they didn't agree district elections were the answer, few Santa Rosans who pay attention to city government would argue against the need more diversity on the City Council. Not just ethnic diversity, but diversity in age and background and neighborhood and income.

But there are serious barriers to achieving that, the greatest of which is the large amounts of money and influence needed to run a successful campaign for council.

Here is a chance for the current council to let someone bypass those barriers.

Will they give that leg up to another middle-aged white guy from the northeast side of town? Will they open the door to City Hall to a political insider who already has access to the halls of power?

Or will they bestow this rare opportunity on a deserving citizen who can represent a different point of view? Someone, for example, whose primary concern is neither the environment nor business but raising a family in a neighborhood west of Highway 101.

There's no guarantee that such a person will apply for the appointment. But council members could encourage such applications by letting it be known that the pool won't be limited to "the usual suspects."

Of course, a cynic might say that each of the six sitting council members already knows who he or she wants to appoint, so why should anyone else apply? A cynic might say that an applicant who is not involved with the Chamber of Commerce or the Alliance or the Neighborhood Coalition or the Bicycle Coalition has no chance. A cynic might say the council isn't interested in inviting new and different points of view into their very exclusive club.

Here's hoping the council proves that cynic wrong.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.