Santa Rosa gave final approval Tuesday to the creation of seven electoral districts for future City Council elections, setting in motion a sweeping change to the city’s political landscape that supporters hope will improve representation of minority communities.
The change means voters from three newly formed districts — in the northwest, north central and southeast parts of the — will get to pick a council member in November, with the four other districts electing council members in 2020.
The unanimous City Council decision was expected, as council members last week hammered out boundaries and decided, with some controversy, to align the districts in contention this year with incumbents who live within those boundaries and are up for re-election.
Councilwoman Julie Combs said she was disappointed the decision meant residents of the newly annexed Roseland neighborhood would not get the chance to vote for a council member this year. But Combs, the only woman on the council, said she nevertheless hoped the district system would bring some needed diversity to the body.
“I think that we have the possibility of equity there in a way that we have not had in the past,” she said.
The change to districts — one voters rejected in 2012 — came about under threat of a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act. Proponents claimed Latino voters were being disenfranchised under the citywide election system because their preferred candidates never get elected. Latinos make up 30 percent of the population, but Santa Rosa has elected only one Latino to City Hall, current Councilman Ernesto Olivares.
Olivares also said he hoped the city used the two years between now and 2020 to help engage the Roseland community so more people will step forward to serve, especially since the transition was done relatively swiftly. The city held six public hearings in a little over two months.
“This is a big, big change for Santa Rosa, probably one of the biggest changes relative to the council in decades,” Olivares said.
Vice Mayor Chris Rogers suggested the electoral change alone might not translate to the diversity sought by supporters of district elections. He said pay raises for council members, who earn a stipend of $9,600 a year and health benefits, would help attract a wider spectrum of candidates.
Rogers noted that many people already struggle to live in Sonoma County, and increasing pay — he didn’t suggest a figure — might help more people be able to serve.
“We need to do a better job in this community in valuing those who would like be invested in and be a part of the future of the city,” he said.
He said he would be willing to make any pay raises apply only to new council members so incumbents would not be seen as voting to enrich themselves.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.
Voting districts for Santa Rosa City Council
Click here for a map of the new districts.