Santa Rosa voters may get to decide in November whether they want to elect their City Council representatives by districts rather than citywide.
City Council members expressed support Tuesday for the recommendations of the 21-member Charter Review Committee, including putting district elections before voters in the fall.
"I don't see why we shouldn't move forward with the committee's recommendations," Mayor Ernesto Olivares said.
The move sets the stage for a Nov. 6 vote which, if approved, could lead to the first-ever City Council election by districts in 2014.
Supporters of district elections packed the City Council chambers, with dozens holding signs saying "District Elections. Let the voters decide." Many pushed for a "simple seven" format with seven council members elected from seven districts and a mayor named from their ranks.
Kyra Janssen, 74, said she attended the charter review meetings, studied the district elections issue closely and concluded that while it is not a "silver bullet," it's preferable given the changing face of Santa Rosa.
"District elections looks to the future rather than to the past," Janssen said.
One of the main arguments for district elections has long been that it would broaden diversity in local politics, which has historically been controlled by residents from the wealthier and whiter northeast section of the city. All seven city council members live in the northeast.
Anne Seeley, of Concerned Citizens of Santa Rosa, said there would be several other benefits to district elections, including reducing the costs of political campaigns and thereby allowing people of more modest means to serve; reduced election costs for the city; and making it easier for voters get to know their elected representatives.
"We think it really is the time to give your constituents the choice in this matter," Seeley said.
Other supporters noted that studies show district elections increase voter participation. Others claimed district elections <NO1><NO>make sense given the city's emphasis on strong, distinct neighborhoods.
Perhaps the most unexpected testimony was from David Walls of the North Bay Organizing Project, who linked district elections to the civil rights struggle by invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.
"Today we say let freedom ring in Santa Rosa!" Wall said.
He then led the chamber, accompanied by a guitarist, in a nearly standing-room-only rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
<CW-10>Not everyone claimed district elections would improve the city's politics.</CW>
World War II veteran Arthur Koenig, 85, said he'd voted in every City Council election for the past 50 years and never once voted for someone because of where they lived, but rather did so based on the positions they took.
"Don't vote for the seven districts because we're going to have (separation) instead of continuity within our city," Koenig said.
The council didn't make a final decision. It accepted the report of the committee and instructed City Attorney Caroline Fowler to return with more information about the three significant items being recommended: district elections, setting clearer ground rules for the arbitration of public safety contract disputes, and allowing so-called design-build city government projects, which are designed and constructed by the same contractor.
The council has until Aug. 10 to tell the county registrar of voters what measures it wants on the ballot. Each measure will cost the city $75,000. Several minor ones many be included in a "cleanup" ballot measure.