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A group dominated by Santa Rosa City Hall insiders has been selected to explore ideas for improving how city government operates.

The Charter Review Committee, appointed last week, has 21 citizens charged with suggesting changes to the city's by-laws to be put before voters next fall.

But the group that will investigate issues that include increasing diversity in local politics isn't terribly diverse itself.

Most have significant experience in city government or politics. The list includes a former mayor, former city manager, two long-time city employees, two campaign managers, two school board members and several people who have served on city boards and commissions.

The youngest person on the panel is 53, and the group's median age is 61. Three quarters of the citizens live in northeast Santa Rosa. And the group is 90 percent white.

That tells David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, that the committee is unlikely to recommend any significant changes. With most of its members part of the city's entrenched political establishment, they're likely to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, he said.

"This is a traditional, don't-rock-the-boat commission," McCuan said.

The charter is the city's constitution, the set of by-laws governing everything from how city departments are organized to when its budgets are prepared and how long City Council members serve.

The process takes places every 10 years and is expected to last about six months. Each council member selected three citizens to serve. The group's first meeting is Sept. 29, and it is expected to meet every two weeks initially. The City Council decides what ultimately to place on the ballot.

City Councilman John Sawyer said criticism about lack of diversity doesn't trouble him.

"Diversity is always good, but I don't think one has to be diverse to make decisions that affect the diversity of Santa Rosa in a positive way," Sawyer said.

The reason there are so many City Hall insiders on the committee, Sawyer said, is because they know how the city has run historically and that knowledge is very valuable.

Sawyer appointed Pat Fruiht, a retired assistant to the city manager; Sharon Wright, a former city councilwoman and mayor; and Doug Bosco, an attorney and former congressman.

The Charter Review Committee isn't necessarily the place for sweeping overhauls of city government but rather a "course correction" for the city, Sawyer said.

"I don't see it as a way to create sea change in the city," he said.

The committee chairman, attorney Mike Senneff, also was the chairman of the two most recent charter reviews, in 1994 and 2002. The committee is a "pretty experienced group," but that can be a good thing because it will have the perspective to see how previous efforts panned out, he said.

"It's an opportunity for people to take a look and say, &‘Did this really work, or is there something else that we should be doing?' " Senneff said.

The council has asked the committee to explore a number of ideas for improving how the city is run, although it can come up with its own.

They include district instead of citywide elections for City Council, directly electing a mayor as is done in Petaluma, changing the requirement that the city use the state pension system and removing the requirement for binding arbitration to settle labor contract disputes.

If that sounds duller than dirt, it's actually anything but, said Bill Carle, an attorney, developer and school board member who was nominated by Councilman Gary Wysocky.

"How government works and its basic structure and procedure is fascinating to me," Carle said, noting he has a degree in political science. "I think we have a responsibility to continually look at representative government and how it operates."

The process is exciting because the political landscape has changed so much in the past decade, Carle said. Voters are more cynical, the economy is struggling and technological changes have changed the way citizens interact with their government, he said.

Wysocky said he tried hard to select people who've been outside the political process, such as neighborhood activist Denise Hill. But mostly he focused on the strength of their ideas, regardless of diversity considerations, he said.

Like Carle, lobbyist and campaign manager Herb Williams served on the committee last time. He said the group met weekly for months.

"It was very intense, but it was really good experience," said Williams, who was nominated by Councilman Jake Ours, whose campaign he ran last year. "Everyone played very fair at the table, intellectually."

Williams said he sees many parallels between the 2002 process and this one, including a 4-3 ideological split on the council. The make-up of the committee is "reflective of the majority and minority of the council, as it should be," he said.

Sonia Taylor, a graphic designer and political activist who also served on a previous committee, said it's a huge time commitment but a process she's looking forward to nevertheless.

"No one would ever say that it's fun, but it is really interesting and really, really important," said Taylor, who was selected by Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.