Santa Rosa marks its 150th birthday this year, but the City Council election coming up on Nov. 6 will be the first of its kind.
Gone are at-large elections, in which voters throughout the city could cast ballots for candidates running for multiple council seats.
This will be the first district election, with voters in three parts of the city choosing one representative for their area. It isn’t a novel concept; that’s how we choose members of Congress, state legislators and county supervisors.
Still, districts change the nature of City Council elections, as candidates will be accountable to their particular constituents and responsible for Santa Rosa as a whole.
Three council seats are up for election in November.
Tom Schwedhelm, an incumbent running for a second term, is unopposed in District 6, the northwest corner of the city, including fire-ravaged Coffey Park.
Newcomers Dorothy Beattie, Victoria Fleming and Mary Watts are running in District 4, which reaches from downtown through the junior college neighborhood to Fountaingrove and Montecito Heights. (Mayor Chris Coursey lives in this district but isn’t seeking re-election.)
John Sawyer, an incumbent, and Lee Pierce, a former councilman, are running in District 2, which stretches southeast from downtown through Bennett Valley.
Sawyer stands out in District 2. With three terms, he is the senior member of a young City Council that is expected to lose two veterans in 2020. With the city’s reserves nearly exhausted after last year’s fires and tough budget choices ahead, his command of City Hall finances is a public asset.
Sawyer also deserves credit for his role, as mayor in 2015-16, in restoring civility and fostering cooperation on what had been a fractious council.
Pierce also has a history of public service. His strongest argument for returning to office is that district elections are supposed to promote diversity. Pierce made history as the first African-American on the Santa Rosa council. So did Sawyer — the first openly gay councilman.
In District 4, issues await that would challenge the most experienced elected official.
Here are two: More than 1,400 homes burned in the Fountaingrove area. The Tubbs fire also amplified neighborhood concerns about traffic on Chanate Road, where the old Sutter Hospital and surrounding county-owned land have been marked for redevelopment.
The county’s attempt to sell the land to a developer who planned 867 housing units was blocked in court, but the property remains in play.
Beattie, who retired after a career in mortgage finance, says the site should be used to ease the housing crunch, adding that neighbors deserve a say in how many units get built.
Fleming, a social worker, says the city should partner with the county if the property is offered again for sale to ensure an open and transparent bidding process, with a goal of building mixed-income housing with safe escape routes.
Watts, a member of the Board of Public Utilities, says she would have to recuse herself because her employer operates a shelter on the Chanate site.
That may be the first unintended consequence of district elections: District 4 residents need their representative to take an active role on this issue. Watts still is a promising future leader for Santa Rosa.