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Santa Rosa panel leaning against district elections for city


Voters shouldn't be given the chance to decide whether members of the City Council should be elected from districts instead of the city as a whole.

That is the preliminary conclusion of the city's Charter Review Committee, which took its first straw poll Thursday on the most controversial issue before it: district elections.

Like two previous such committees, the 21-member body appointed by the existing city council is taking a dim view of the notion that carving up the city into districts will create greater diversity and accountability in local politics.

Of the 16 members of the committee in attendance Thursday, 10 said they favored keeping the status quo, while six expressed support for districts.

"I don't think our system is broken or dysfunctional to the point where that change would help matters," said Doug Bosco, a lawyer and former Congressman.

Bosco said he was not swayed by claims that districts would decrease the cost of elections, better represent minority groups and ensure more equitable distribution of city services.

Political consultant Terry Price countered there was plenty of evidence district elections would do most of those things, and voters should get the chance to consider it.

"This is a democratic process" Price said. "Let's let the voters decide if they see that district elections would better represent them in the governance of their city."

Price said it was significant to note that nearly everyone who voted against district elections was appointed by a member of the current council majority, while all who voted in favor of them were appointed by the minority.

The only exception was Bill Carle, who was appointed by Gary Wysocky but voted against district elections.

Price said the vote shows the council majority wants to preserve the city's political status quo.

Price is working for Julie Combs, a neighborhood activist who is running for City Council and has made district elections a platform in her campaign.

The committee wanted to take a straw poll on the issue before the public forum being held March 10. The goal was to give the public a sense of how the committee was leaning so residents could share their views.

Three other significant issues before the committee include binding arbitration of police and fire; direct election of the mayor, instead of a councilman being selected by a council majority; and the role of the Community Advisory Board.

But district elections has by far been the most divisive issue for the committee, with members having differing interpretations of even the most basic information.

For example, a map was created showing where the 20 City Council members between 2000 and 2010 have lived. The map shows 11 have lived in the city's northeast, five in the southeast, four from the northwest, and none from the city's southwest.

Bosco said the map showed "there's been a pretty good spread of people all around the city." Price, meanwhile, said it showed "exactly the opposite," with a paucity of representation from the city's west side.

Price also argued that district elections will lower the cost of campaigns by limiting the number of voters a candidate needs to try to reach, such as with political mailers, often the single highest cost of any campaign.

But rival campaign consultant Herb Williams, who ran the campaigns of all four members of the current council majority, called that a "specious argument."

Special interests will still "dump whatever amount of money they want" into the individual district races, and the overall costs of elections will soar, he said.

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