If formally approved as expected by a second vote Tuesday of its City Council, the Santa Rosa’s transition to district elections will go forward, with what could be broad and lasting implications for the city’s future political landscape.
Under the new rules, seven months from now, Santa Rosa will stage an election like no other in its history.
Instead of all participating voters in the city choosing how to fill three seats on the seven-member City Council, as would typically occur, residents in three newly created districts will be able to vote only in the contest for the seat to represent their area of Santa Rosa. In 2020, the same process will cover council seats for the remaining four districts.
Advocates of the switch say it is likely to result in a more diverse set of elected leaders for Santa Rosa, which has long been governed by council members living in predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods on the east side of Highway 101.
The sweeping change — one voters rejected in 2012 — came about under threat of a lawsuit, with proponents claiming Latino voters were being disenfranchised under the city-wide election system because their preferred candidates weren’t getting elected to the City Council. Latinos make up 30 percent of the population, but Santa Rosa has elected only one Latino to City Hall, current Councilman Ernesto Olivares.
Still, under the proposal up for approval Tuesday, the most heavily Latino areas of the city would have to wait until 2020 to have their say on who fills those council seats.
In the meantime, the three seats in contention this fall could attract a trio of familiar faces — Mayor Chris Coursey and councilmen John Sawyer and Tom Schwedhelm.
All three are expected to seek re-election and will be able to do so in the districts where they live after a disputed decision last week by the council majority that ensured no incumbents were ousted from their seats by the electoral system overhaul.
Coursey lives in the city’s new north-central district, Sawyer is in the southeastern district and Schwedhelm is in the district that takes in the city’s northwestern corner.
Whoever prevails in those contests — and incumbents hold a historic advantage in Santa Rosa — will serve alongside the existing four council members who were the top vote-getters citywide in 2014 and have two years left on their four-year terms. They are Julie Combs, Chris Rogers, Jack Tibbetts and Olivares, who is running this year for Sonoma County sheriff.
So for the next two years, the council will be made up of three council members elected from the new districts and four elected from the city as a whole.
The 2020 election will complete the cycle for districts making up the east, central, southwest and south-central areas of the city.
At that point, the council will be made up of seven people who individually represent separate areas of the city but who collectively represent the entire city, much like the county Board of Supervisors.
Those in favor of district elections say they make it easier for people to run for public office and make public officials more accountable to the public. Critics say they create fiefdoms and risk encouraging provincial thinking by politicians instead of keeping the best interests of the city in mind in their decisions.