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.