The Santa Rosa City Council placed a heavy burden on the all-important Charter Review Committee with its send-off last week. In addition to a long list of options to explore, the council saddled the committee with one unnecessary controversy.

The dispute has to do with the composition of the 21-member panel and its lack of geographic and demographic diversity.

Each council member is allowed to appoint three members, thus there's no real control on whether the demographics of the committee would reflect that of the community. As has happened before, it doesn't. Ninety percent of its members are white — representing a community with 40 percent minorities — and 75 percent of the members live in the city's northeast quadrant.

In addition, no one on the committee is less than 53 years old, and most are former City Council members, city employees, consultants or other City Hall insiders.

The council could have made the committee's work easier — and headed off any shadow over the committee's ultimate recommendations — by simply doing what it did a decade ago when the same problem arouse. It added seven more members to broaden its diversity. Instead, the council this time decided it was satisfied with the mix and moved on.

The community is left to hope that this won't come back to haunt the committee as well as the City Council.

Nonetheless, this controversy shouldn't distract this committee from its vital task. It's charged with updating the city's charter every 10 years. The issues it's mandated to consider include:

<BL@199,12,11,10>Evaluating district elections and whether it's time for Santa Rosa to have each City Council member represent — and run in — a particular district, as county supervisors and legislators do.

<BL@199,12,11,10>Whether the mayor should be directly elected.

<BL@199,12,11,10>The role of community advisory boards.

All of these have been evaluated by previous commissions and rejected at one point or another.

But these issues pale in comparison to two more pressing initiatives that are on the table. One is a discussion of the city's pension programs and whether it should be obliged to go with the CalPERS system. The other concerns whether it's time the city overturn the requirement that contract disputes between the city and police and fire employees must go to binding arbitration.

The latter is significant because it is the Sword of Damocles that hangs over the heads of elected officials. Binding arbitration, which voters approved in 1996, is a costly and time-consuming process, and in the end, there's little assurance that the public benefits.

It's also a major contributing factor to how the city has fallen $100 million behind in funding the retirement packages it has promised, particularly to public safety employees. And we believe it's time the city consider lifting this requirement.

The CalPERS discussion is equally vital. Santa Rosa's charter requires the city to go through the CalPERS system if it offers a defined benefit plan for its employees. But this limits the city's ability to adopt certain reform measures, such as rolling back retirement ages, which the CalPERS system may not accommodate.

To adopt certain reforms, the city may have to change the wording of its charter to look at alternatives to CalPERS.

The charter review committee has an opportunity to provide some important perspective on these critical issues. It's too bad, due to no fault of its own, that it's starting off on the wrong foot.