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Petaluma officials mull district elections

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Should Petaluma divide its city council into electoral districts?

It’s a question cities throughout California have been forced to answer in recent years, spurred by the threat of litigation from voting rights advocates that believe at-large elections disenfranchise minority voters.

Petaluma currently isn’t facing a voting rights lawsuit, or fielding calls from its constituents to elect leaders from individual districts instead of citywide. But the rising tide of district elections — even in Sonoma County — has local officials considering how it might look, and if it would actually fulfill its intended purpose.

“The state law is such that if you get one of those letters, most of the cities that have gotten them have moved to district elections,” Councilman Mike Healy said. “The state law is designed to increase minority representation. I’m not sure if that’s a factor here.”

A 2016 report found that 59 of the state’s 482 cities hold district elections, and 28 made the switch between 2011 and 2016.

Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman has been targeting cities that have neighborhoods or corners of the community that are densely populated by underrepresented racial minorities, and uses the California Voting Rights Act as the framework to compel immediate change.

Local leaders are then forced to determine if the high cost for pursuing an unlikely victory in a courtroom is worth it.

Of the 15 cities that have fought back against the bellicose attorney, all have lost. Santa Monica squandered an estimated $10 million in legal fees on an unsuccessful challenge.

Santa Rosa received a letter from Shenkman in 2017, and later drew up seven districts to give its Latino residents — which account for 30 percent of the population — more say. The city’s largest school district also moved to district elections. The November midterms were the first official election to include the new districts.

Windsor also received a letter last fall, and the town council opted to take the full 90 days provided by the law to make a decision on how to proceed.

Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett said she’s neutral on whether council districts are warranted in her city, but she does want to have a proactive conversation about what it might look like.

“We need to look at it so then we’re not just being forced to do something, but we’ve actually given it some thought,” she said. “If districts are to bring diversity, will that happen? And how does that happen? But I really wonder whether you would get diversity given that we don’t have neighborhoods that are specifically one demographic.”

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 22 percent of Petaluma’s population is Latino or Hispanic. Population estimates show an overall increase of nearly 3,000 people, which means that percentage will likely be higher when the next census is taken in 2020.

Petaluma currently has one Latino elected official, Councilman Gabe Kearney, who was reelected to a second term on the seven-member council in 2016. Kearney did not respond to an interview request for this story.

“Since the ’10 census, we’ve grown so much, and I really want to take those changes in,” Barrett said. “If we are looking for change, then we have to at least identify our community and say, ‘What is the change we can achieve through having district elections?’ ”

Aside from minority representation, many point out the differences between constituents on either side of the Petaluma River and Highway 101.

The west side is generally skewed toward older residential areas with less room for new development, while the east side is populated by working-class families with sprawling subdivisions and much of the city’s retail and shopping centers.

Healy refuted the notion that east side residents don’t get fair representation, pointing to results from the last two local elections where east-side precincts swung the mayoral races.

“The east side is a very powerful voice in local government, even if the council members aren’t from it,” he said.

Barrett also dismissed the idea of separate east-west representation, and believes it could polarize local politics in a way that stifles the ongoing progress being made at City Hall.

“I don’t want to encourage an east-west divide,” she said. “I think that should be minimized and gotten rid of.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)