Is it Time for San Rafael Council Districts?

San Rafael on a Full Moon Night The recent San Rafael City Council vote on the Civic Center Station Area Plan went the way I would have liked, but given the objections of neighbors I'm surprised the vote was unanimous. Neighborhood objections such as this need a debate to ensure all voices really are heard, but the current system doesn’t serve that need. Perhaps it's time for San Rafael to consider a district-based council.

Every town council, city council, and board in Marin, barring the Board of Supervisors itself, is elected at-large. While such a system makes sense for small towns, larger cities like San Rafael have distinct neighborhoods with distinct goals, opinions, cultures and needs. Gerstle Park has concerns about noise from Albert Field, the Canal worries about street lighting, downtown is concerned about crime and historic preservation, and North San Rafael is concerned about development.

Each of these areas needs a champion for their cause, and the best way to do that is through city council districts.

Santa Rosa is considering just that. Advocates cite long-standing geographic and ethnic inequities in the seven-member council. For example, Santa Rosa is 30% Latino but has an all-white council only one Latino member. All members hail from the eastern half of the city, five from the northeast. This arrangement has persisted for at least 20 years. The Latino member, Mayor Ernesto Olivares, was only elected in 2008, and the geographic arrangement has persisted for at least 20 years.

In San Rafael, the situation is similar. Downtown and the Canal have no representation on the council. East San Rafael went 20 years before a councilmember from that area, Peacock Gap’s Andrew McCullough, was elected. I don’t know if the Canal has ever had a home-grown councilmember. In a city where close to a third of the population is minority, McCullough is the only minority councilmember, being of Filipino-American descent.

More importantly, tying members to districts brings attention and resources to those needs that may otherwise be overlooked and allows neighborhoods to hold their representatives accountable. Richard Hall, a new commenter on TGM and strong opponent of the Civic Center SAP, might viably challenge a North San Rafael councilmember if he were able to campaign in just his neighborhood. The SAP could be a wedge issue for them.

But the two North San Rafael councilmembers, Damon Connolly of Mont Marin (the neighborhood between Northgate and Marinwood) and Gary Phillips of Terra Linda, are elected at-large. In the large pond of San Rafael, Hall likely wouldn’t be able to use the SAP as a wedge issue or to use Connolly and Phillips' votes against them. Instead, the issue is likely to never get a fair shake in an election where his neighbors could actually say whether they support the plan or not.

Opponents of Santa Rosa’s district proposal argue the result will be a balkanized, divided city. Geographic rivalries would flare up and councilmembers would only look out for their own district’s needs at the expense of the city as a whole. Electing members at large, they argue, promotes consensus and comity between residents and neighborhoods.

Yet the history of divided, unruly councils is long in Marin. For years, the Fairfax Town Council was a truly contentious body but has recently returned to civility. Just this year, Sausalito’s council literally came to blows in the hand-slap heard ‘round the county.  All the while, the district-based Board of Supervisors was a picture of calm and unity. It’s not districts that divide a city council, it's rivalries and scant leadership.

Still, if San Rafael does pursue districts, it could keep its unique at-large mayoral seat, ensuring at least one member of the Council will represent the city as a whole.

As San Rafael continues to grow, the needs and cultures of its various neighborhoods will deepen and diversify. Ensuring adequate representation on the council and fair consideration of issues during elections is vital to the legitimacy of city governance and the health of city debate. It's time to consider something new.