Santa Rosa Finishes shift to district-based elections

By Albert Gregory

(Left) Jorge Inocencio and (right) Eddie Alvarez are running to be the first elected city council seat to represent District 1 in Santa Rosa. (Photos courtesy of Inocencio’s and Alvarez’ Facebooks)

Santa Rosa will complete the transition from electing at-large city council members to the now district-based representatives when they vote on Nov. 3 to decide who will fill the final seats. 

After Shenkman & Hughes, a Malibu law firm, threatened to sue the city and dozens of other local California governments, claiming they were violating a California Voting Rights Act, the city divided itself into seven voting districts, according to Santa Rosa city clerk Stephanie Williams. 

Rather than voting on all city council seats, voters will now choose the candidates from the specific geographic district both they and the candidate reside in, Williams said. 

After electing councilmembers to the even numbered districts in 2018, Santa Rosa voters will now elect representatives for District 1, which includes Roseland, District 3, which includes Rincon Valley and Oakmont, District 5, which falls in the middle of the city and includes much of downtown, and District 7, which includes everything from west of Stony Point Road and south of Guerneville Road, according to 

After the Nov. 3 election, all city council seats will be filled as Mayor Tom Schwedhelm who represents District 6, which includes Coffey Park, Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming who represents District 4, which includes Fountaingrove, and Councilman John Sawyer who represents District 2, which includes Bennett Valley, all were elected in 2018, according to Williams and

Many community members and the city council candidates running in these newly formed districts believe this election process will provide much better representation, especially for District 1 with its vast Latino population. 

“Santa Rosa has a very large and mostly young Latino population and our council is skewed towards kind of older and less diverse,” said Jorge Inocencio, 27, who works as electrical engineer, was born and raised in Roseland and is running for city council in District 1. 

Opening elections up to district-based voting provides opportunities to those who may not have had a chance to get enough votes in the at-large system, Inocencio said. 

“I think having the district elections is really key for that because it’s allowing people who may not have been able to run, to run this time around, just because the districts are smaller it gives people more of a fighting chance and I think that’s what it’s about, getting that direct representation,” he said.

That direct representation could provide areas like Roseland, which was annexed into the city in 2017, the attention some of its residents like Mariana Martinez thinks it deserves. 

“Our infrastructure, housing and all that, it’s a little bit not up to par to the rest of the city and it is our hope that with this new district a representative [will be elected] that will be able to actually have some action occur to our side of town,” Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees member Martinez said.   

Moving this representation local can give the community the opportunity to speak for itself through candidates like Inocencio, Eddie Alvarez and Duane De Witt, who are all longtime residents of District 1 and are all running for its city council seat. 

“From a personal perspective it has allowed me to directly communicate with the community I wish to represent. I believe having direct representation from a community member who has experienced the true struggles from the community he is elected makes a difference. District elections give communities their own voice,” local businessowner Alvarez said. 

For some candidates they find it as an opportunity for all viewpoint to be heard on city council. 

“The election process will be better if we look at diversity of opinion also, not just different economic or ethnic background,” De Witt said. “Get councilmembers who are willing to say no, who are not just going to side with the majority every time, who are going to speak up for the residents of our districts to make sure there is true representation of what those taxpaying voters want.”

The true test for some of these candidates may come when those local residents receive their ballots and see, some for the first time, the city has made this switch. 

“I plan to submit my mail in ballot this week, so I haven’t done my full research on everything quite yet. Honestly, I had no idea until now that Santa Rosa made the switch to geographic districts. Growing up in the city of San Jose, I assumed the city of Santa Rosa already had geographic districts like this in place,” said District 3 resident Daniel Mercado, 24, a sales development representative at Ascent Cloud, a sales software company which has an office in Petaluma. 

Elizabeth Valente, who is also running for city council in District 1, did not initially respond for comment.  

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