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Looking back now, we can see that the fight over district elections was inevitable. For 20 years, Santa Rosa city officials talked about reaching out to neighborhoods beyond the upscale precincts of the northeast.

But nothing changed. Whether City Hall insiders were unable or unwilling to share power, each new city government looked pretty much like the last city government. Think older, whiter and living in a handful of privileged neighborhoods.

And so the debate over Measure Q begins.

"This has the chance to re-shape Santa Rosa politics in the near term and could be the biggest change in more than a generation," Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan told Staff Writer Kevin McCallum.

Much is riding on the outcome — and not just because district elections would transform city politics.

Unless people on both sides of the issue are mindful of what they say and do, a debate that could involve neighborhood rivalries, ethnicity and income has the potential to leave resentments that linger long after the election is decided.

Because disagreeing is what they do best, the usual factions are choosing sides again. With some exceptions, folks from the so-called progressive, pro-environment faction support district elections, and folks from the so-called pro-business faction oppose district elections.

Long ago and far away, these two groups battled over major development projects. Now they just battle because they can, because it is set in their minds that the other side would harm Santa Rosa.

What they don't acknowledge is that the city has been harmed by its reputation as that place in Northern California where a divided council lives in a permanent state of disharmony. (With rival Santa Rosa council members campaigning for the Board of Supervisors, it will be interesting to see whether the same divisive politics is exported to county government.)

Even the composition of the latest charter review committee confirmed a City Council dominated by factions living in cocoons of their own making. Fearing the other side might gain an advantage, each packed the committee with its friends.

If you were under 54 years of age or if you were Latino, you were not welcome. Three-quarters of the committee members also came from the same northeast neighborhoods that have controlled city government for too long.

To its credit, the charter review committee at least understood that the city couldn't wait another 10 years before granting voters the opportunity to decide the issue.

For a long time, I thought district elections were an invitation to logrolling and political infighting among neighborhoods — without any guarantee that city government would be improved.

But years of dithering have transformed district elections into an uncertain idea whose time has come, if only because 20 years is long enough to wait, and doing nothing for another decade is not an option.

For people who like the status quo, it is pleasant to believe that everything is hunky-dory in Santa Rosa.

It isn't. Santa Rosa is at risk of becoming a city divided, east and west, between haves and have nots, between Anglos and Latinos, between young and old.

Santa Rosa is already a city in which an aging cadre of community leaders has done too little to nurture the next generation of leaders.

It's not acceptable that Latino residents, soon 30 percent of the population, can't find places at the table.

It's also not smart. A civil rights lawsuit, citing the imbalance of representation in city government, could be costly to defend and harmful to the city's reputation.

The history that has played out in other cities suggests inertia and complacency will lead to distrust, bitterness and divisions that will never be repaired.

The last 20 years did bring one change to city government. The council was expanded from five to seven members, ostensibly to make the council more representative of the entire city.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. (The most noticeable difference may be that meetings last longer because seven people require more time to talk than five people do.)

After the experiment failed, the charter review committee could have proposed a return to a five-member council, but it didn't.

Politics being politics, no one wanted to reduce seven seats to five. If it were nine seats, no one would want to reduce nine seats to seven. And so on.

Seven members or five? Elected at large or elected by district? People disagree about which will work best.

Whatever the outcome, partisans who care about the future of their city will resist the temptation to play one neighborhood against another, or one group of people against another.

In trying to figure out how to create a better future for all, Santa Rosans need to watch out that they don't create a city more divided and angry.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>