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There’s one big problem with The Press Democrat’s endorsement of a district election system in Santa Rosa that protects incumbent politicians in the 2018 election: It’s against the law (“If we must have election districts, let’s do it right,” Nov. 12).

According to guidelines of the California Redistricting Commission, electoral “districts shall not be drawn to favor or discriminate against any incumbent, candidate or political party.”

Yet the system endorsed by this newspaper, first suggested by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and Sonoma County Alliance, is entirely based upon favoring the seven sitting members of the City Council. This not only flies in the face of state guidelines, it directly contradicts the very purpose of changing to a district election system. The switch to districts is meant to correct a historic underrepresentation on the council of minority voters and neighborhoods west of Highway 101 — not to protect the incumbents who represent that imbalance.

The PD’s editorial argues, “Santa Rosa can ill afford this kind of political upheaval and conflict as it recovers from the most devastating wildfire in state history.” It’s a convenient sentiment, but it doesn’t hide the fact that the newspaper — along with the chamber and the Alliance — has long opposed district elections. Using the tragedy of our recent fires as an excuse to defend the status quo is inexcusable and indefensible.

Fire or no fire, City Council districts by law should be drawn to give underrepresented communities a voice in city governance, not perpetuate historic inequities. In order to eliminate the inequalities of our existing election system, we ask our elected officials to follow the U.S. and California Voting Rights Acts and:

1. Create districts that are equal in population.

2. Ensure districts in which communities of interest (people who share a common demography, culture, class, etc.) are kept intact; and

3. Forgo any consideration of how these changes might affect incumbents.

The simple definition of gerrymandering is when politicians are allowed to pick their voters, rather than when voters are allowed to pick their politicians. The business community’s plan to draw districts with the main purpose of protecting incumbents allows Santa Rosa’s “powers that be” to pick their voters. It would continue the situation that makes Santa Rosa vulnerable to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit today by denying the city’s protected classes the opportunity to choose their representatives. It’s not just bad government; it would leave the city open to further lawsuits.

Today, six of the seven council members live on the east side of Highway 101, while 40 percent of Santa Rosa residents live on the west side. In order to draw districts to protect the incumbent council members, the business groups recommend creating new districts that straddle the freeway, separating communities of interest and diluting the voting power of neighborhoods that historically have been left without Council representation. This is neither fair nor necessary.

The legal thing, and the right thing, is to create districts that give the minority community an equal opportunity to elect candidates of its choice, and the way to do that is to draw districts on the west side that maximize minority populations. Districts that dilute the minority vote will only increase distrust and resentments among those who are denied an equal voice.

The PD attempts to justify its desire to maintain the status quo by raising a concern about forcing current elected officials to compete against one another. We thought a contested election is what we strived to achieve in our democracy.

A majority of current council members will retain their seats until 2020. In 2018, districts encompassing those Santa Rosans who have been historically excluded should elect representatives of their choice to the City Council. If not now, when?

Caroline Banuelos is president of the Sonoma County Latino Democratic Club. Lisa Maldonado is co-chair of the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County. This is also signed by Alicia Roman, an attorney and member of the Sonoma County Latino Democratic Club.

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