Santa Rosa shouldn't elect its City Council members from specific sections of the city, the argument goes, because that would be "divisive."


The city's Charter Review Committee, appointed by the council, is divided on this issue, last week in a straw poll voting 10-6 (with five members absent) not to make a recommendation for district elections.

The last Charter Committee to deal with the issue, in 2002, voted against district elections by a 15-13 margin. In 1994, the Charter Committee failed to make a recommendation on the issue when it deadlocked 14-14.

Asked by citizens to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide, the City Council in 2002 refused, on a 4-3 vote. In 2004, with two members absent, the council turned down a ballot measure on a 3-2 vote.

So, by all means, let's not make any changes in Santa Rosa that might be "divisive."

Sarcasm aside, this is not an issue about divisiveness. It's an issue about power. The folks who have that power want to hold onto it, and the folks who don't have it want a piece of it.

Plain and simple.

This scenario has played out three times now, starting with that Charter Committee in 1994. At the time it was pointed out that Santa Rosa had never had a council member from the west side of Highway 101 and that minority representation on the council had been virtually nil since the city's origins. A hand-picked group of citizens appointed by the council came within a vote of recommending a sure-fire way to change that, but the 14-14 tie left the powers-that-be exhaling a huge sigh of relief.

But the issue didn't go away.

District elections, for those who haven't followed this, would break up the city into seven districts – each of which to be represented by a single member of the City Council. This is how the county Board of Supervisors is elected, the board of the Santa Rosa Junior College, the state Legislature and many other government bodies.

It would ensure representation from neighborhoods in southwest or northwest Santa Rosa, which now have no residents on the council.

When the issue emerged again in 2002, dividing both the Charter Committee and the City Council, the council refused to put the issue on the ballot and instead created the Community Advisory Board to seek a wider diversity of opinions in city government. But this year, some members of the City Council are questioning the need for and efficacy of the Community Advisory Board.

And, district elections again are topping the Charter Committee's agenda.

As they should. Minorities and west-side residents still are grossly underrepresented in city government, despite 20 years of "concern" from those in power. That concern has resulted in little more than lip service, as shown when the current council appointed this latest version of the Charter Committee. Of its 21 members, 90 percent are white, none are Latino, three-quarters live in northeast Santa Rosa, more than half are directly connected to government and the youngest is 53 years old.

"I don't think our system is broken or dysfunctional," said former Congressman Doug Bosco, a committee member, at last week's meeting.

Of course it's not – for him. But therein lies the problem. If government is comprised only of people for whom government is working just fine, there is no reason to make changes to include those for whom it doesn't work at all.

The members of the council and the Charter Committee aren't bad people. But their perspectives are limited. Just as mine are. Just as yours are.

City government needs to reflect the whole city, not just a corner of it, not just its baby boomers and retirees.

For 20 years, we have known that there is one sure-fire way to change the makeup and perspective of the City Council. We have also known for 20 years that the City Council is unwilling to make that change by voting to implement district elections.

So the time has come to let the people decide. Put it on the ballot.

The Charter Review Committee takes up the issue again at 10 a.m. Saturday at the city's Utilities Field Operations Building, 35 Stony Point Road. The meeting is open to the public.

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