Santa Rosa voters get to decide in November whether to fundamentally change the way their city council is chosen.

The council has unanimously approved a ballot measure asking voters whether they want to elect representatives from seven districts instead of the city as a whole.

The decision Tuesday came as no surprise, given that last week a majority of council members voiced conceptual support for the idea of a ballot measure, which was narrowly recommended by the 21-member Charter Review Committee.

But the vote was nevertheless hailed by district election advocates as a breakthrough 20 years in the making.

City Hall politics long have been dominated by councilmembers who live in the city's older east side, in particular the more affluent northeast. All seven current council members live on the east side — five of them in the northeast.

"I see some change happening," Councilwoman Susan Gorin said. "This is very exciting."

Supporters of district elections contend that it will increase accountability and diversity in City Hall decision making, reduce the cost of elections and protect the city from lawsuits alleging "racially polarized" voting patterns.

Opponents contend that the current system works just fine and that dividing the city into seven districts will "Balkanize" city politics and erode civic unity. They worry that district elections would make council members beholden to neighborhoods at the expense of the best interests of the city as a whole.

The ballot language will merely ask voters if they want the charter to call for electing representatives from seven districts instead of the current system of seven council members from the city as a whole.

Council candidates would have to live in the district they represent, which raises a concern from some about finding enough qualified candidates to run for city council. The districts would be drawn after the election.

Some council members had previously asked whether a hybrid system could be established, such as have five members elected by districts and two from the city as a whole.

However, City Attorney Caroline Fowler said that creating seven districts was legally preferable to such a hybrid system. That's because cities with hybrid election systems aren't protected from lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, but those with pure district elections are, she said.

Roseland resident Duane DeWitt said district elections are a "totally American approach" to government that is long overdue in a city ruled by the political elite and business interests. Increasing the geographic diversity of representation is one way to help foster a more equitable government, he said.

"If you don't see the folks on the other side of the street that often, you're going to help the folks on your side of the street," DeWitt said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or