Santa Rosa redraws voting landscape to give city’s Latinos more say
The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday redrew the city’s political landscape to give Latinos a greater say in city politics, but postponed until 2020 the races that would allow the most heavily Latino neighborhoods to determine who represents them at City Hall.
In its fifth public meeting held to create district elections for the city, the council approved a map carving the city into seven districts of about 25,000 residents each, three of which touch the downtown, as business groups had requested.
But after creating the districts, the council chose to protect three current incumbents - all three middle-aged white men - by ensuring the districts where they live come up for election when their current four-year terms are up this year.
The move to smooth the path to re-election for Mayor Chris Coursey and Councilmen John Sawyer and Tom Schwedhelm was sharply criticized by Coursey, who voted against the move and said he was disappointed in the decision.
He argued the heavily Latino Roseland neighborhood, which was annexed into the city last year, should have been the first area given the chance to vote for a council member from their neighborhood, and other seats chosen at random.
“On the one hand we are creating change with district elections, but on the other hand we’re protecting the status quo,” Coursey said.
The effect of the move, Coursey said, was to make it unlikely any new faces will step forward to participate in city politics from the three districts that will be up for election less than seven months from now.
“To me, we were doing this to create change, and the reality is that if all three incumbents run for re-election, there will be no change at all in 2018,” he said.
While Coursey supported the switch to district elections and even campaigned on it in 2014, the move was forced on the city by an attorney from Malibu who threatened to sue under the California Voting Rights Act, arguing that Latinos were disenfranchised by the city’s at-large election system.
Council members who supported the election cycle favoring the three incumbents all voiced other reasons than protecting the status quo.
Schwedhelm, who lives in Coffey Park, on the northwest side of town, called it an “out of body experience” to be voting on districts and election cycles in the best interests of the city but which also affected him.
There haven’t been any council members from his area of town, and he said it didn’t feel right to have the council effectively remove his ability to run again.
“I don’t think that decision should be made by this body. I think it should be the voters,” he said.
Schwedhelm, who lives on the edge of the Tubbs fire burn zone in Coffey Park, argued constituents would be turning to council members with knowledge of the complex recovery issues.
Sawyer, who never wanted district elections in the first place, argued against having Roseland get the chance to vote for a representative this year.
Turnout in the heavily Latino community has historically been far higher during presidential election cycles, and Sawyer said waiting until then would make it more likely Latino voters would be able to pick a candidate of their choosing.
“I would be looking to put them into 2020, and I hate to sound parental, for their good,” Sawyer said.
That position was supported by Olivares, the only Latino to ever serve on the council. He said he’s spoken with a number of Roseland residents and leaders on the issue and they supported letting those areas vote for a council representative in 2020 “so that we can maximize voter turnout with the presidential election.”
The city’s demographer advised the council that, generally speaking, it was better to have voters decide who sits on the council than advance district boundaries that prevent current members from serving again.
Sawyer, now in his third term, was the only one among the three incumbents favored by Tuesday’s action who acknowledged he plans to run this fall.
“I do hope that I am given the chance to represent the people of Santa Rosa for another term,” Sawyer said.
For all the hand-wringing over the election cycle, the decision on district lines was comparatively smooth. The previous week, council had narrowed down a list of six maps to one. Two more new maps came in since, and so they considered a total of three maps Tuesday. They quickly settled on map number 121B, and then set about tweaking it.
The map somewhat resembles a pinwheel, with a central district that crosses Highway 101, three districts touching downtown and the southwest area served by two council members.
Councilwoman Julie Combs made a proposal to extend the eastern Santa Rosa district down to include everything east of Summerfield Road, which would have moved nearly 1,500 residents from her Bennett Valley district and into the Oakmont/Rincon Valley district.
She argued that residents so close to Trione-Annadel State Park had more in common - demographically and financially - with Oakmont than Montgomery Village.
But to balance out that population increase, Combs proposed moving a chunk of Rincon Valley north of Oliver’s Market into the Fountaingrove district. That, however, would have moved Rincon Valley Middle School and surrounding homes into Fountaingrove, which the council rejected.
A change proposed by Coursey for the Roseland district was approved. He endorsed shifting the line between the two Roseland districts to make Stony Point Road more of a dividing line. Doing so would keep more of the recently annexed Roseland area intact in the same district, he reasoned.
That required Elsie Allen High School and surrounding homes to be shifted out of the core Roseland district into the westernmost district.
The map and sequencing of seats won’t be formally approved until a second, final vote next week.
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that the districts contain about 25,000 residents each, not voters.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.