As noted in a Press Democrat story last month, the city of Santa Rosa and the Santa Rosa City Schools District have both received letters of intent to sue if the City Council and the school board don’t move away from at-large elections and adopt district elections (“Santa Rosa accused of unfair elections,” July 24). This means, the council and school board have a choice between two options: 1. They can voluntarily agree to switch to district elections and allow voters to elect their elected officials by geographic area, similar to Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; or 2. They can engage in a lengthy legal battle and prolong the inevitable.
In 2002, the California Voting Rights Act expanded the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for minority voters to sue local governments and eliminate at-large elections on the grounds that they dilute minority votes and influence. If the voter succeeds in proving his case, the government entity must pay attorney’s fees and costs. So far, no government entity in California has won a case. That’s probably because, prior to sending out a letter of intent to sue, the attorney will hire an expert to crunch the numbers to determine whether there is in fact a case.
The Voting Rights Act was intended to increase opportunities for Latinos and other minorities to elect a representative of their choice. The law was not just designed to elect minorities to local government but to also prevent, in Santa Rosa for example, eastside neighborhoods from having too much influence.
A candidate from the west side of town may or may not be Latino, but it would be the choice of voters of that district to decide who can best represent them. It’s about giving the incorporated areas of Roseland, West 9th Street, Apple Valley and South Park neighborhoods a voice.
The struggle for district elections in Santa Rosa has been long and difficult. The charter review, which the council has the option to convene after the census is completed, rejected the concept of district elections twice. In 2004, there was a petition drive that was not able to gather enough signatures. In 2012, after the issue of district elections went through extensive debate for the third time during the charter review process, it was finally recommended to the members of the City Council, and they agreed, to place it on the ballot. Measure Q went through a bruising campaign during which voters were told erroneously that they their representation would be diminished if it passed. It too was unsuccessful.
In the meantime, very few candidates of color or candidates living on the west side of town have been elected to either the City Council or the school board. The results have been glaring. As communities of color, especially Latino, have grown as well as the city’s population, the political entities they represent have not changed to reflect the community. Despite all the hard work and advocacy to bring district elections to Santa Rosa, we have little to show for it. Now we have a chance for fairness and equity.
The City Council and school board don’t need to see a map of where our elected officials currently reside to know that changes are in order. In fact, as our leaders, they have a moral obligation to stand up and vote for something that corrects a wrong. Both governing bodies have an opportunity now to reflect the values we profess to have and to demonstrate these values by voluntarily moving to a system that will ultimately be more representative of all the people of Santa Rosa.