District elections got a surprise boost Thursday when the committee that tentatively voted against it two weeks ago reversed course and agreed the issue should be put before voters.

Several members of the 21-member Charter Review Committee cited the large, impassioned turnout of residents at the public forum on the issue last Saturday as influencing their thinking.

Key to the turnaround was political consultant Herb Williams' change of heart, which he said was brought about in part by a speaker on Saturday who referenced the sacrifice of his son, Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, who was killed in 2007 in Iraq.

"Of all the testimony, only one person got to me," Williams said. "And that was the person who said . . . that Jesse gave his life so that everybody had the right to vote."

Williams reiterated, however, that he remained solidly against district elections, and was only changing his position about whether it should be placed on the ballot.

"I'm opposed to district elections, but I want the voters to weigh in on it," Williams said.

Exactly how to go about that, however, proved highly controversial. Several committee members argued strongly that it made no sense for the committee to be against district elections and yet advise the council to put it on the ballot anyway.

"I don't believe it's within our province to say we think the charter is good as it is, and yet we think we should put it to a vote," said Bill Arnone. "It seems inconsistent."

Chairman Mike Senneff agreed, saying it was the committee's role to advise the council whether the charter should be changed, and if so, how. Giving the council "an amorphous statement" that it should give voters the chance to decide on district elections crossed a line into telling the council what it should do, which he said was "not our job."

"Frankly we weren't asked to that dance. Nobody invited us into that party," Senneff said. "They are the elected representatives."

The committee only makes recommendations to the council, which can follow them, ignore them, or decide on its own what to place on an upcoming ballot.

Doug Bosco said it would be "foolish" of the committee to "dump this on the lap of the City Council" without offering specific changes to the charter language.

That's what political consultant Terry Price initially proposed. He wanted a subcommittee to explore exactly what kind of district elections the City Council should put on the ballot. But Williams and others said they couldn't support that because suggesting language changes would wrongly imply they supported district elections. Price's motion failed 11-8.

Ida Johnson then proposed a general motion calling for the City Council to "reconsider at-large elections," the current system whereby the seven council members are elected citywide.

District elections would carve the city into several electoral districts, much like Sonoma County's five supervisors represent geographic areas. Some have suggested a hybrid system could be established with some council members continuing to be elected city-wide.

Proponents argue district elections would increase accountability and diversity in city politics by lowering the cost of elections and ensuring every area of the city is represented.

Critics claim district elections are unnecessary, wouldn't really reduce election costs, and would "Balkanize" city politics and make politicians less concerned about what's good for the city as a whole.

But Johnson said the message she received Saturday was that residents didn't want a panel of 21 residents to make the decision for them.

"What I heard all day was let the people decide," Johnson said.

Davin Cardenas, an activist with the North Bay Organizing Project, said the city's low voter turnout was evidence of voter apathy. He said district elections would be just the thing to invigorate the democratic process, which he said "should be a beautiful, dirty, rugged wonderful thing that produces fire in people's bellies."

Before the vote, resident Elaine Holtz chastised the female members of the committee in particular, reminding them that it wasn't that long ago they didn't have the right to vote.

"How dare you vote against having an election for our citizens," Holtz said. "I feel like I'm on my knees begging for democracy."

Johnson's motion won by the narrowest of votes, 10-9. Voting in favor were Donna Jeye, Wayne Goldberg, Bill Steck, Herb Williams, Pam Chanter, Ann Gray Byrd, Sonia Taylor, Ida Johnson, Denise Hill and Bill Carle. Opposing it were Chairman Mike Senneff, Bill Arnone, Pat Fruiht, Doug Bosco, Patti Cisco, Tony Alvernaz, Janet Condron, Bob Andrews and Terry Price.

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