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Rohnert Park adopts district-based elections map that protects incumbents in 2020 election

The Rohnert Park City Council on Tuesday advanced its plan to shift to ?district-based elections and selected a final map with boundaries that will protect the three incumbents who are up for reelection from having to run against one another in November.

Council members continued to acknowledge a preference for not transitioning to a different voting process at all, citing concerns that the new system will eventually divide the council based on each being elected to represent just a fraction of the city’s population. But in a 4-1 vote, and over calls from members of the public who favored other map configurations, the council moved forward, and will look to finalize its decision at its next meeting later this month.

“I really despise this election stuff,” said Mayor Joe Callinan. “I could see it down the road, that someone’s going to get elected and not care about the entire Rohnert Park, and that scares the hell out of me. You’re not going to get the perfect map. I’m sorry, it’s just not going to happen.”

The chosen map ensures that Mayor Joe Callinan, Vice Mayor Jake Mackenzie and Councilwoman Gina Belforte, whose terms are all up at the end of the year, will not have to face off in the 2020 election. So far, Callinan and Belforte each have stated their intention to seek a fourth term, while Mackenzie has yet to commit to running for his seventh.

The map, which was one of two revised options posted to the city’s website last week after three months of deliberations and three public meetings - as well as closed-door sessions on the topic last week and before Tuesday night’s meeting - detoured from what the majority of the council indicated was their top choice at its prior public meeting in?December. That version would have forced Callinan and Belforte, who have both held their council seats since 2008, into a head-to-head race.

The selection also went against the four members of the public who spoke at the meeting, with three of them requesting the council go with the version they selected in December. Belforte also said she preferred the map from the previous meeting among a couple of others in casting her vote against the majority’s vote for the final choice.

None of the public speakers liked the map, arguing that it split up some of the Latino population who make up a large portion of the A and B neighborhoods, hurting their chances at electing a representative on the council. The chosen option instead allowed a council member who lived outside these older sections of the city to continue to represent them, they said.

“We all know that there’s socioeconomic differences in our neighborhoods. Those people deserve representation, and we should have that on our council,” said Chris Meyer, a five-year Rohnert Park resident. “You guys should know that. And I think you believe that, and I don’t like to see this city being carved up and gerrymandered just to protect certain things.”

Rohnert Park’s move to the new district-based election system was initiated by the threat of a lawsuit from a Southern California attorney in a letter sent to Rohnert Park in October. As he has done with cities and school districts across California, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman has alleged that Rohnert Park’s current at-large voting process violates the state’s voting rights law because it does not allow proportional representation on the council for the city’s Latino population.

The city is using population data from the 2010 U.S. census to draw its map boundaries for the 2020 election because it is the most recent information available. However, the city will be forced to go through the same public mapping process for creating its five districts again for future elections after the 2020 census is completed and the new population numbers are released.

Council members said Tuesday that requirement led them to decide on a map that disrupted the current council as little as possible. It will allow each of them to apply their years of experience on the City Council to the next district mapping process before the 2022 election, when first-term Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams and longtime Councilwoman Pam Stafford will each be up for reelection.

“As a council member, I feel like I represent the whole community. I don’t feel like I represent just the street that I live on,” Stafford said. “We are just in a situation that we have to pick something, we have to move forward. That’s the reality of this. So pick one, because we’re going to have to do it over anyway.”

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