Santa Rosa voters will decide Nov. 6 whether or not to enact the most sweeping change to the city's political landscape in generations.
Measure Q would require the city to switch from at-large elections, in which City Council members are elected city-wide, to district elections, in which each council member would represent one of seven sections of the city.
Sounds simple. Yet the issue is one of the most complicated and contentious that local voters ever have been asked to consider.
"It's a change to the foundation and system of how the city operates and governs itself, which is a much deeper question than most ballot measures," said Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation, which studied the issue for the city.
For more than 30 years city residents have debated whether district elections would help heal a city long divided politically, racially and geographically. City politics long have been dominated by those from the wealthier east — and particularly northeast — parts of the city. The west and southeast sections have significantly higher Latino populations than the northeast and are separated from the rest of the city by Highway 101 and the Santa Rosa Plaza mall.
In the past 30 years, and perhaps historically, only two members of the council have been identified as racial or ethnic minorities.
The matter of district elections was the most controversial and emotional subjects this year taken up by the city's 21-member Charter Review Committee, which is revived once a decade to consider potential revisions to the city bylaws.
Two previous committees had rejected putting district elections on the ballot, but <NO1><NO>in June the City Council unanimously accepted the current committee's recommendation to put the issue before voters.
Despite the long history, the issue remains poorly understood by most voters, in part because the opposing campaigns are making contradictory claims on nearly every issue.
Supporters argue that district elections can help unify the city because council members would work together better when they aren't competing with each other for votes.
Opponents claim the opposite, that creating districts would balkanize the community and make council members less focused on what's best for the city as a whole.
The two sides also starkly disagree on whether district elections would reduce the cost of campaigns, increase diversity on the council, or are needed to stave off the threat of lawsuits alleging a discriminatory political framework.
One point of consensus, however, is that district elections would dramatically transform Santa Rosa politics.
"This decision will impact just about everything that comes before the City Council," Johnson said. "It will affect the City Council for probably the rest of the city's history."
<b>Big enough for districts?</b>
Whether Santa Rosa is big enough to need or benefit from districts elections is one of the key issues in the debate.
Supporters insist the city, with a 2010 population of just under 168,000, is so big that City Council members can't fully grasp the breadth of issues facing all its diverse neighborhoods and be responsive to all its residents.
They note that candidates can find it difficult to walk the city's 42 square miles and instead rely on mail campaign literature to reach potential voters. This increases campaign costs and makes candidates more beholden to deep-pocketed special interests, they say.