Santa Rosa’s move from at-large to district-based elections, a switch the city is making in response to a threat of a voting rights lawsuit, stands to reshape the local political landscape and potentially put some council members out of a job.
The seven-member City Council on Tuesday set in motion an electoral overhaul that could very well leave some of them outside the district their seat will soon represent, or, like in musical chairs, leave some council members standing awkwardly without an empty seat to claim.
Among the trio of council members likely to be affected first is Santa Rosa’s mayor, Chris Coursey.
“I don’t know whether I’m going to be eligible for re-election next election cycle,” said Coursey, who until last week was pretty sure he’d be running next year for a second four-year term on the council. Councilmen John Sawyer and Tom Schwedhelm also are up for re-election and face similar uncertainty about their future in city office.
The electoral reform — one long sought by activists to give underrepresented neighborhoods greater influence over makeup of the City Council — has unleashed innumerable legal, logistical and political questions, not the least of which is whether some political careers get cut short in the process.
“If I lose re-election in 2020 as a result of this change, I am OK with that,” said Jack Tibbetts who just bought a house in southeast Santa Rosa and at 27 is the youngest council member. “There’s a lot to do outside of elected office.”
The uncertainty created by the transition to district elections is one of the reasons, in addition to legal timelines, that council members voted to move forward swiftly. Current council members, future candidates and voters would all be well served by a quick resolution of the issue, Coursey said.
“The community needs to know what elections are going to look like next year sooner rather than later,” he said.
The speed of the transition — the council agreed to try to get it done in 90 days — has current council members pondering their political futures.
Two questions could prove pivotal. The first is how district boundaries are drawn. The city plans to hire a demographer to analyze voting patterns in the city and, with public input, draw up maps of the districts.
It’s still unclear how many districts would be formed. In 2012, when a measure to create district elections was rejected by voters, supporters had pushed for a format with seven districts and a mayor picked from among them. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Some council members, including Tibbetts, say they support six individual districts with the mayor being picked for the seventh seat by citywide election.
Once the council settles on a number of districts and delineates their boundaries, the city will need to outline a transition to the new electoral system.
Santa Rosa City Schools, which is switching to district elections in response to the same legal threat, has said it plans to have three seats elected by districts next year, and four the following year. It’s possible the city could follow a similar plan.
It’s also possible all seven seats could come open at once, or that those seats to be shifted to districts in 2018 could be picked at random.
“It’s possible the method we use is to just draw three districts out of a hat,” Councilwoman Julie Combs said.
Ultimately, all seven seats on the council will be affected by the shift.
“I don’t know what district I will be in. I don’t know who all else will be in that district. And I don’t know how this will impact me personally,” Combs said.
But Combs and the three other council members elected or re-elected in 2016 — Ernesto Olivares, Chris Rogers and Tibbetts — are working on the assumption that however the transition goes, they’ll be able to serve the remaining three years of their terms.
Coursey, Sawyer and Schwedhelm are in a different boat. Under the current citywide system, their terms expire next year. It is not uncommon for candidates to begin campaigning more than a year before the election.
Schwedhelm, the city’s former police chief, who for the past 30 years has lived near Schaefer Elementary School in the northwest part of town, doesn’t see much immediate impact to him personally or politically. He is the only council member from his part of town, so he thinks he’ll likely be the only council member in his district when the lines are drawn.
But “I don’t think anyone knows these answers yet,” Schwedhelm said.
If he is re-elected from a district next year, Schwedhelm said he probably will have to rethink how he goes about representing the area.
Currently, on issues such as homelessness, Schwedhelm said he tries to take a citywide approach to the problem, believing the whole city benefits when such issues are addressed. That could change under district elections, he said.
As an example, he noted he is planning to visit Oakmont soon to talk to voters about the city’s homeless strategy. If he represented the northwest side of the city, he wonders if etiquette would dictate deference to the eastside council member.
Four of the seven council members — Combs, Tibbetts, Sawyer and Olivares — live in southeast Santa Rosa, defined as east of Highway 101 and south of Highway 12. Rogers, who lives in the Burbank Gardens neighborhood near downtown, is just a few blocks away.
Of those five, only Sawyer, who lives off Hoen Avenue, is up for re-election in 2018.
“I had not completely decided whether or not to run again, and this adds a wrinkle, it adds an element of the unknown,” Sawyer said.
He voiced concern districts would create “fiefdoms” instead of a council that makes decisions based on the best interests of the whole city. He wondered how he would have voted on the SAY Dream Center for at-risk youth, which he views as a huge success and community asset, if he represented Bennett Valley, which contained pockets of strong resistance to the project, instead of the city at large.
If that district is picked for election next year, Sawyer could secure another four-year term, leaving another neighboring council member, such as Combs, with nowhere to go in 2020.
“At that point, for her to run for council, she would have to move,” Sawyer said.
Not necessarily, Combs said. In that scenario, she said she might decide to run against Sawyer for the seat in 2018 to secure another four-year term.
It might not come to that, she said, because it may make more sense to have a different set of districts up for election next year. Combs, for starters, favors creating a new district in Roseland, which is set to become part of the city by the end of the year, to ensure that its residents have immediate representation on the council.
She stressed that it will be up to voters to tell council members how they should conduct the transition during upcoming public hearings on the issue. The primary goal is to make it easier for people to run for council and to make the council more accountable to the public, Combs said.
“The fact that it may inconvenience me in some way means nothing, because it’s good for the whole community to have everyone’s voice heard. Period,” Combs said.
Olivares, who is running for Sonoma County sheriff next year, would still be able to serve the rest of his term on the council until 2020 if he falls short in the sheriff’s race.
But Olivares lives in the neighborhood near Sonoma Academy — likely the same district as Sawyer and Combs — meaning he could also be in the outs by 2020 if Sawyer runs and wins re-election.
He would have to move to have a chance at remaining on the council, something he and his wife, Rita, had never planned on.
“I enjoy what I’m doing, but where I’m going to be in 2019, I just don’t know,” Olivares said. “But for me, with 40 years of public service, that’s not going to stop.”
Rogers said it’s more important to him that the council make the transition in a way that’s fair to voters instead of fair to the existing council members “because the ramifications of what we are doing is going to outlive us all.”
He’s going to be arguing that the process should be as transparent as possible so that there is no question at all about “tomfoolery or gerrymandering” of districts to benefit individual council members.
“It’s going to be a fascinating time. I’m going to be really interested to see how it plays out,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.