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If you want to understand why Santa Rosa is obligated to enact district elections, here is the reason writ large: In the process of creating districts of equal population, it’s likely future city councils will include as many as three representatives from neighborhoods west of Highway 101.

For a long time, large sections of the west side were unrepresented at City Hall, and it wasn’t lost on anyone that these were the neighborhoods with the largest populations of Latino voters. Then, in July, a Southern California attorney alleged the city was in violation of the state Voting Rights Act.

At the moment his certified letter arrived in the mail, time ran out on city leaders’ promises to do better. Santa Rosa always said it was going to create a more inclusive government, but nothing ever changed.

Within weeks, the City Council capitulated for reasons everyone understood. The city was going to lose in court, and it would have been an expensive (and embarrassing) defeat.

After completing the third of five public hearings last week, the City Council appears on its way to creating a city government in which every neighborhood has a place at the table.

Come April 17, the council is expected to adopt a map that locates the boundaries of seven council districts and resolves the knotty problem of which districts will be up for election later this year and which will be up for election in 2020.

If you think serving on the City Council is easy, try to wrap your head around the permutations associated with 28 (and counting) map options and deciding which districts will be first up. “It gets very complicated very fast,” demographer Douglas Johnson told the council on Tuesday night.

In broad strokes, the goal is to create districts that respect communities of interest, that are equal in population, that are compact and contiguous and that respect neighborhoods. Along the way, council members will have the opportunity to think about every corner of their town.

The task is daunting, except for political junkies. They love this stuff.

Before Oct. 9, the controversies associated with district elections were expected to dominate city hall politics in 2018.

Now we could wish. The fires that destroyed thousands of homes in October changed everything, leaving district maps to play second fiddle to a rebuilding process that will involve elemental choices about the city’s future.

In the name of civic engagement, the council began the districting process by establishing a web site that invited residents to create their own maps. Good intentions, however, also led to confusion. Council members heard complaints from people who gave up in frustration.

Until pressed by Mayor Chris Coursey to begin winnowing the choices, even council members appeared unsure about what to do. Near the end of last week’s discussion, Coursey urged his colleagues, “I think we need to help the public out more than we have tonight.”

In response, the council narrowed the number of maps under consideration from 28 to 6 (though more maps are expected in the coming days).

Judging by the council’s comments and the features common to all six maps, here are some of the likely outcomes:

All or the largest part of at least three districts will be located on the west side of Highway 101.

The working class neighborhood of Coffey Park and the upscale neighborhood of Fountaingrove will be placed in separate districts.

Multiple districts will include portions of the downtown. “It’s not a gift to the business community,” said Coursey, “it’s a recognition that this is the most vital part of the city.”

In the name of continuity and coping with the aftermath of the October fires, the city’s business establishment — in the form of the Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Sonoma County Alliance — proposed a map that would protect the council’s seven incumbents.

At the moment, none of the six remaining maps conform with the Chamber-Alliance proposal.

Coursey later told me, “To me, any map that’s based on incumbency is a non-starter.”

You will recognize here a departure from politics as usual in state capitals, where every redistricting plan begins with a focus on partisan advantage and incumbency. (Note: You can see the maps under consideration and add your own comments at https://srcity.org/2819/Draft-Maps

We could wish otherwise, but there will be no second chance for the decision to build a freeway and divide the city in half. For a long time, Highway 101 has imposed both physical and a psychological barriers on our capacity to get to know folks on the other side of town.

If you believe Santa Rosa can remain prosperous without granting full citizenship to people who live on the west side, you’re not paying attention to the changes happening all around us. Healthy communities make sure every neighborhood feels recognized. It’s why we believe in democracy.

Pete Golis is a columnist for the Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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