The wildfires that destroyed 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa have delayed and complicated the largest overhaul in city elections in at least a generation, but they haven’t halted it.
The seven-member City Council on Tuesday restarted the process of crafting an entirely new system for electing council members that is arguably fairer to the city’s growing Latino population.
Instead of council members being elected by the entire city, or at-large, they’ll soon be elected from geographic districts, much as members of the Board of Supervisors represent separate areas of the county.
The council’s decision in August to make the switch came after an attorney alleged the city’s Latino voters were disenfranchised because candidates they prefer are rarely elected.
“The circumstances of the city have changed since last August, but the circumstances of the law have not,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.
In July, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman sent letters to the city and Santa Rosa City Schools claiming the citywide election system has resulted in “racially polarized voting” patterns that violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
The council and school district both agreed to switch to district elections to limit their legal exposure, which has run into the millions of dollars for cities that have tangled with Shenkman.
The council held its first public hearing on Oct. 3, but six days later large swaths of the Santa Rosa lay in smoldering ruins.
“All bets were off at that point,” City Attorney Sue Gallagher said.
In restarting that process Tuesday, the council adopted an aggressive schedule of five public hearings over the next two months, which would set the stage for the first council candidates from districts to run for office in November.
Exactly what that looks like, including the number of districts, where the lines are drawn, and which ones will be up for election this year versus 2020, are all questions yet to be answered.
Also an open question: What’s to be done in districts where thousands of people lost their homes, Gallagher noted.
“We do recognize that the impacts of the fire have added some rather substantial complications to this process,” she said.
To begin with, reaching residents displaced by the fires and engaging them in the election-system overhaul is going to be that much more difficult, she said.
Many have relocated to other communities or even other states, she said, which may make it difficult for them to participate in the public hearings.
The city is going to explore ways to help them be as involved, she said.
The displacement of so many residents could also skew attempts to balance populations among the districts.
“It could potentially affect how the demographer looks at our population,” Gallagher said.
The current plan is for the demographer to draw the districts assuming everyone rebuilds, she said. People who haven’t yet rebuilt will still retain the right to vote, she noted.
No district maps have been drawn yet.
The first two meetings, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 6 and 13, will be to gather public opinion about how the districts should be drawn.