Santa Rosa City Council members may soon be elected from specific areas of the city instead of the city as a whole to avert a threatened lawsuit alleging its current election system does not give Latino voters a fair voice in city governance.
Facing a potentially costly lawsuit that one council member likened to “extortion,” the City Council late Tuesday night voted unanimously to begin the process of abolishing the current system of at-large elections, where all seven council members represent the entire city. It would be replaced with district-based contests, where council members are elected from smaller geographic areas.
Voters soundly rejected that exact change in 2012, but council members said the recent threat of a lawsuit from an attorney representing a voting rights group was forcing their hand.
“I don’t want to waste the public’s dollars trying to fight a lawsuit that I don’t think we can win,” Councilman Chris Roger said.
The move promises to radically change the city’s political landscape in the long term, and nothing short of upheaval in the short term as the tight timelines required by the 2002 California Voting Rights Act threaten to bring other city initiatives to a standstill as the city races to implement the change.
“This will take precedence over everything else we are doing because we cannot afford to misstep,” said Councilman John Sawyer, a past opponent of district elections.
The council approved a 90-day timeline that will involve at least four public meetings to get public feedback, draw the districts and bring the issue back before the council for a Nov. 21 decision.
City Manager Sean McGlynn called that “an incredibly compressed timeframe” and expressed concern that other council priorities might have to take a backseat.
“Ninety days will go by in the blink of an eye, and getting information out will be challenging,” McGlynn said.
Council members strongly disagreed whether the new system would be an improvement or not. Mayor Chris Coursey said he believes the existing election system was unfair. Sawyer said he worried that carving the city into districts would create “fiefdoms” that leave council members less likely to do what’s right for the entire city.
But all seemed to agree that making the switch was the only viable course given the expensive alternatives facing the city. Holding an election to decide the point was estimated to cost $450,000, and as several council members pointed out, wouldn’t even decide the issue.
“If the voters turn down district elections, we’re going to be in the same place then that we are today,” Coursey said.
And fighting the case in court was estimated to cost up to $4.5 million, with no guarantee of victory. Several council members — who met earlier in closed session to discuss legal strategy with City Attorney Sue Gallagher — said they believed the city would probably lose.
The $4.5 million figure was the estimated cost incurred by the city of Palmdale, which lost its case and its appeal and had to implement district elections anyway, Gallagher said.
The decision by the Santa Rosa City Council follows the city’s receipt on July 17 of a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who represents a Texas-based voting rights group. The letter claimed the city has “racially polarized voting,” as defined by the California Voting Rights Act. The Santa Rosa school district received a similar letter.