Golis: How Santa Rosa elections became a lawsuit waiting to happen

In late May, the Los Angeles Times published a story about a Malibu lawyer who was suing cities - alleging they failed to provide representation for low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Using the prescriptions of the California Voting Rights Act, attorney Kevin Shenkman was finding success, and the story made clear that other California cities could expect to hear from him.

His certified letter to the city of Santa Rosa arrived in mid-July. In it, Shenkman and a voting rights’ group called the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project put the City Council on notice that it could choose to fight a lawsuit or agree to district elections.

On Tuesday night, the council capitulated, voting 7-0 to set in motion a process that could lead to district elections next year. Gone would be the system in which seven council members are elected citywide.

After years of heated debate and one contentious ballot measure, the conclusion was strangely muted and anti-climactic. Watching from home, one could see only a tiny audience remained for the council’s discussion.

While some council members welcomed the prospect of district elections and some did not, everyone seemed to know, in the words of Mayor Chris Coursey, that “we have a losing case here.”

Councilman John Sawyer, long an opponent of district elections, admitted, “As much as my heart is not in district elections, it was always a matter of when, not if.”

About the threat of lawsuit, he said, “I think we will lose, and it will be very expensive.”

For Palmdale, a Southern California city that fought and lost a lawsuit filed under the state Voting Rights Act, the bill was $4.6 million.

“Successful defenses have been rare,” Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher advised the council.

Other council members said Santa Rosa was overdue to make this change. “I think it’s time to embrace this new reality. We’re a bigger city now,” said Councilwoman Julie Combs.

After one speaker suggested the introduction of district elections might also lead to a lawsuit, Coursey said, “If we’re going to get sued, I’d rather get sued for doing the right thing, rather than defending a system that excludes a large segment of our community.”

“The people of the west side need a voice. Right now, they don’t have a voice,” said Caroline Bañuelos, a former council candidate and president of the Sonoma County Latino Democratic Club.

Many Santa Rosans will be surprised, but they probably shouldn’t be. If bad facts lead to unfavorable court decisions, Santa Rosa did not have a good story to tell.

For decades, most members of the City Council have come from the same northeast Santa Rosa neighborhoods.

No one could fail to notice that large sections of the city seldom had a place at the table when Santa Rosa’s future was being decided.

Even granting council members’ good intentions, it remains difficult for people who live in one section of the city to experience Santa Rosa in the same way as people in other sections of the city experience it. Despite pledges to create a more representative government, nothing much changed.

Meanwhile, city councils were tone deaf to a degree difficult to comprehend. When the last charter review committee was empaneled in 2012, everyone knew district elections would be the issue that dominated all others.

Yet the council managed to appoint a committee of the same old political insiders. Three-quarters of the members lived in the same northeast precincts. In a city in which 30 percent of the population was Latino, none of the 21 charter committee members was Latino, and none was under 54 years of age.

Now a new City Council - with two members under 30 years old - has a chance to manage how Santa Rosa goes about the implementation of district elections.

A five-member or seven-member council? Some council members elected by district and some at-large? Six council members from districts and a mayor elected at-large? There will be possibilities.

What would pass muster under the law? And what happens to incumbent council members elected at large?

For political junkies, the possibilities will make for lots of conversation.

One thing we know: People will now be able to run for office without having to spend boatloads of money or cozy up to special interest groups.

All of this was predictable, of course. So long as there was no successful effort to broaden representation in city government, Santa Rosa’s at-large system of elections was always going to be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

If nothing else, district elections may help the people of Santa Rosa get to know each other.

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