Sep 042012
 

To his credit, Pete Golis, retired Editorial Director and now occasional opinion columnist of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, has come out in favor of district elections for the City of Santa Rosa. Under the proposed change to the city’s system of government, one City Council member would be elected from each of seven sub-districts of the city, rather than all running at large. As a result, every part of town would have a representative on the City Council.

It’s a good idea, and long overdue. Voters should support it.

I was nonplussed, however, by Mr. Golis’ most recent column on the topic, in which he wrote that he is concerned a hotly contested campaign over the question could be “divisive”.

Mr. Golis’ argument, in essence, is this:

  • Concerns about threats to Santa Rosa’s quality of life due to growth are no longer warranted because growth is now slow;
  • Neighborhood advocates and environmentalists are still battling the business community only because both sides are in the habit of fighting one another;
  • The “city has been harmed by its reputation as that place in Northern California where a divided council lives in a permanent state of disharmony”…though in whose eyes—and why we should care—is unclear from his piece;
  • Therefore, partisans on both sides of the question should be careful to avoid setting the interests of the city’s regions against one another as they debate the district elections proposal.

That certainly sounds pleasant: everyone play nice, may the best side win, and let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya afterwards, because ding dong the growth is dead and we have nothing more to fight about.

Unfortunately, it’s not a perspective based on factual premises or an accurate reading of history.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Development, construction and real estate have crashed, and they’re going to stay crashed for awhile. But they won’t stay crashed forever (I hope), so using recent numbers to argue that residents need no longer be vigilant and attentive to project proposals—and to defend against business community attempts to strip hard-won planning, review and permitting standards from the development approval process while they’re waiting for things to warm up again— doesn’t make any sense. It’s like saying you don’t need to maintain your smoke alarm and fire extinguisher because your house isn’t on fire.

The heart of my disagreement with Mr. Golis’ opinion piece, however, is that he frames the debate over district elections with a false equivalence. He implies the ongoing contention between environmental/neighborhood advocates and the business community is an unnecessarily continued rivalry between roughly equal teams.

But he fails to mention that the business community (read, “development, construction and real estate interests,” since small business tends to get short shrift from what we call “business leaders” around here) has dominated the Santa Rosa City Council for all but two years in living memory.

There has been no see-saw of power in Santa Rosa. Those who advocate for neighborhoods, inclusiveness, and residents’ quality of life have spent literal decades banging on the door to City Hall, largely unheeded, while business-backed City Council majorities have cheerfully rubber-stamped approval of nearly every proposal placed before them, from expanded asphalt plant operations in the middle of town to ridgetop McMansions at Skyhawk.

In fact, if not for voters’ having directly approved an Urban Growth Boundary by initiative which only a public vote can amend, it’s probable that Santa Rosa would have continued to sprawl during the real estate boom, instead of waking up to smell the 21st century and looking seriously at slower, higher-density, pedestrian-friendly, transit-serviceable “smart growth”.

Every Santa Rosa City Council election for the past 20+ years has been a face-up battle between bags of business community cash on one side and outspent neighborhood, environmental and quality of life advocates running grassroots campaigns on the other. And most of the time, those advocating the positions embraced by a majority of the city’s voters have lost.

Fair disclosure: from 1991-2000, I was the first Executive Director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, an organization which operates a door-to-door organizing canvass which helped to somewhat level that playing field (more so in other cities). Just so we’re all clear about what side I’m on.

I proposed and helped to build SCCA because I believe in democracy. Anyone looking at a poll of Sonoma County in the late 1980s could see that rates of growth and eroding quality of life were at the top of public concerns. But in the absence of a countervailing voice, pro-development candidates were running and getting elected by campaigning on slow-growth messages, and voters had no way of knowing they were being misled.

Which is surprising, when you think about it, because…well, don’t we have a local newspaper?

But I digress.

Since Santa Rosa’s founding, its City Council representatives have come almost exclusively from wealthy neighborhoods on the east side, their campaigns financed by the city’s major business interests. Of the handful who have come from the west side, at least two have lived in wealthy islands west of the freeway surrounded by—but separate from—working-class and disproportionately minority-populated areas.

Why? Well, it’s simple: because the power bloc that has run the city since time immemorial isn’t there to serve the little people. And the system works just fine for them, so when you look at the lineup of those opposing Santa Rosa district elections, it’s a rogues’ gallery of long-established leaders of those same interests.

When your cause is just, but you are consistently steamrollered by well-connected, affluent power, you get frustrated. When you’re Hispanic and you see your demographic’s share of the City’s voter base climbing rapidly without any reflection in the makeup of the City Council, you have good reason to feel the dice are loaded.

“Divisiveness” already exists. Ordinary residents, minorities and neighborhood advocates have good reason for anger about the cold reception they receive when they challenge projects proposed by the interests on the inside track. The situation has not improved. And while the City Council does, finally, have one Hispanic member, he was promoted and his campaign funded by those same entrenched interests, and is as reliable a vote for them as you could find. Hardly a game-changer.

District elections give people-powered campaigns a fighting chance. The districts are small enough that a candidate will be able to walk to every door, instead of having to campaign throughout the entire city, which encompasses more voters than a Sonoma County Supervisorial District. Candidates won’t need to raise as much money to print and mail their literature. It’ll be an opportunity for candidates on both sides of the Great Insider/Grassroots Divide to make their cases to voters, rather than one side swamping the other with money. And when people in a neighborhood have a problem, they’ll know who to go to for help.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s democracy.

Santa Rosa has been large enough to warrant district elections for at least a decade—probably two. In the meantime, we’ve had the Citizens United version of democracy, with an electoral process heavily weighting outcomes towards those who hope to profit from city policies.

You can’t make change without talking about the problem you’re trying to solve. As Mr. Golis has acknowledged, the current system has people riled up, and with good reason. Affluent areas of the city and monied interests have been dominating city politics since forever.

You can’t expect advocates for a change not to talk—and pointedly—about that. To draw comparisons. To document inequalities. If that ruffles some feathers on the part of those who have been calling the shots since the days of Carrillo and Finley…well, I say cry me a river.

Mr. Golis has been around county politics for a very long time. He understands that the advantage in an election always lies with the status quo. When he sadly opines about the potential for “divisiveness”, to me it sounds as though he is saying that it is more important to him for advocates of district elections to run a genteel, soft-pitch campaign so we can all get along afterwards than it is for them to win.

That sounds like reversed priorities to me. I’ll forgo the Kumbaya, thanks, if that’s the cost of a leveled playing field at last.

At publication, the Dragon was BLUNT