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Santa Rosa’s political landscape in limbo

The Santa Rosa city council listens to a comment by Roseland resident Duane De Witt, right, during a city council meeting in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday, December 6, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

KEVIN MCCALLUM,

Under threat of a lawsuit accusing it of disenfranchising voters, the Santa Rosa City Council will debate today whether to fundamentally change the way the city is governed.

The council is being forced to decide in short order whether to change from at-large elections, where every council member represents the entire city, to district elections, where — like county supervisors — every council member represents an area of the city.

“It’s a big decision,” Councilwoman Julie Combs said. “It will change the political landscape of our city.”

Santa Rosa voters last considered district elections in 2012 when, after the issue was raised during the charter review process, they rejected Measure Q by a wide margin.

The question has now been raised again by a letter the city received last month from an attorney representing a voting rights group claiming the citywide election system has resulted in “racially polarized voting” patterns that violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

The Santa Rosa school board received the same threat from the attorney, Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman, and, citing the high cost of fighting the issue in court, quickly capitulated. Three school board seats will be elected by districts in November 2018. The remaining four board seats will switch to the same system in 2020.

The letter has forced the city to decide whether it wants to fight the lawsuit, embrace district elections, or ask voters or a judge what to do.

A state law shields agencies against such suits for 45 days after receiving such a letter, hence the rush to take a position on the issue.

But the need for a rapid response has left the city and council members with little time to consider all the implications of such a profound change to city governance.

“It’s going to be a fun topic on Tuesday,” Councilman Chris Rogers said. “There are a lot of question marks.”

Some of those questions include how much fighting such a lawsuit might cost and what the city’s chances are of winning. Rogers said.

“There have been other cities that have spent millions fighting this and have ended up losing and having to implement district elections anyway,” Rogers said.

Combs said she’s heard legal costs estimated at between $3 million and $7 million.

Other questions include how many districts there would be, how they would be drawn, when the new system would be implemented and what happens to current council members who might not live in the district created for their seat.

Shenkman, the attorney, has said he wants to make sure the district elections are in place before the 2018 election.

The courses of action before the city today include telling staff to mount a legal defense, expressing the council’s intention to put the issue on the ballot in June of 2018, deciding itself to transition to district elections or asking a Sonoma County Superior Court judge to decide the issue.

Veteran political consultant Herb Williams, who ran the campaign against Measure Q, said he feels voters have already decisively weighed in on the issue.

“We’ve already ratified a vote of the people, and we should show that to the court if it asks,” Williams said.

But a 5-year-old decision by voters seems unlikely to hold much sway in court against a law firm with a track record of success in such suits, and the reality that Santa Rosa’s voting patterns have shown clear divisions, Combs said.

“If you look at the voting results for the (2012) district election vote, it shows a divided city. It shows two cities,” Combs said. “I think we are at risk of having racially polarized voting.”

Combs noted that there has never been a council member elected from the southwest part of Santa Rosa, which itself should be a “red flag,” she said.

And the annexation of the heavily Latino Roseland neighborhood, expected to be completed by the end of the year, will only strengthen the case that elections would be fairer with districts, she said.