Rohnert Park City Council race divided over climate change

Candidates in Rohnert Park’s first-ever district-based election are squaring off over the issue of how to contend with the city’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.|

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A proposal to prioritize climate change in Rohnert Park’s guiding document for the next two decades has stalled, with members of the City Council landing on opposite sides of the debate over how much weight should be given to the issue in future land use decisions.

Council members last week ended discussion on the subject with a 2-2 straw poll vote, forcing the item concerning Rohnert Park’s general plan to be tabled likely until next year. The deadlock came just weeks after yet another major wildfire ripped through the county and the state’s largest fire on record continues to burn to the north in Mendocino County — impacts that scientists link to human-caused global warming from rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Joe Callinan, currently serving as the city’s mayor, and Jake Mackenzie, the council’s longest-serving member, offered competing views on the topic, and were each joined by one other council member. Longtime Councilwoman Pam Stafford supported Callinan, while first-term Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams joined Mackenzie in aiming to make climate change a top focus for the city. Councilwoman Gina Belforte was absent, creating the high-stakes stalemate.

“Instead of beating a dead horse, it sounds like we’re at an impasse,” Callinan told the council at its regular meeting, held virtually, last week. “I think this is one that will have to wait for our fifth council member. So without beating each other up, it’s getting late, let’s move on.”

But the polarizing issue has gained momentum and become a clear dividing line in the council race underway in the county’s third-largest city, with under two weeks to go before ballots are due.

Both Callinan and Mackenzie face challenges in their respective reelection bids in the city’s first-ever district-based races. The two incumbents endorse one another, but also are each up against an opponent backed by the county’s progressive wing, including endorsements from the local Democratic Party among other left-leaning elected officials and political organizations. Like Mackenzie, the challengers have made addressing climate change a key piece of their campaign platforms.

“There are some people on the council who believe climate change is a matter of conjecture. I would not be one of those,” said Gerard Giudice, a local restaurateur and longtime city planning commissioner challenging Callinan for the District 3 seat. “I think that it shows the voters there’s a stark difference between my opponent and myself. It’s not a political issue and the longer we make it one, the longer we decrease the chances of making a better path.”

Jackie Elward, a nonprofit founder and local school recess supervisor, is going head-to-head with Mackenzie for the District 4 seat. If elected, Elward said she would support the climate component of the general plan. She pledged to improve public transportation and create more walkable neighborhoods, goals to help get people out of their cars and reduce Rohnert Park’s impacts on the environment.

“Since 2017, our county as a whole has witnessed Mother Nature and the result of climate change. Nobody can deny it,” she said. “We have to encourage people to be as green as possible and actually realize this is our new normal. I will be really fierce about that, because it’s the only way we can start to help reduce the carbon emissions.”

In the District 1 race, between political newcomers Dave Soldavini and Willy Linares, a similar division exists. Linares, who also is backed by the local Democratic Party and last month began working for the marketing arm of Sonoma Clean Power, said he’d move quickly to approve the climate change item in the general plan, while Soldavini was less certain about which steps the city should take and said the matter deserved more study.

“Something is going on with the climate and the temperatures getting warmer. If you read what scientists have to say and what forest management has to say, then you can make your opinions,” Soldavini said by phone. “The city should look into every viable option if they can, and what they need to do and what is best for the city and for the environment. If it works, is feasible and can be sustained, then they can do it. But not everything is going to be done at one time.”

“I’m somebody who believes climate change is an urgent threat and so relevant to our lives right now. We need to take action now,” Linares countered in an interview. “I truly believe it is our responsibility to take action to decrease emissions that we’re emitting and increase new renewable energy use.”

Of Sonoma County’s nine cities, Rohnert Park also is the only one that has not adopted a resolution declaring a climate emergency. The action recommended by the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority to influence municipal policymaking has sat dormant in City Hall for more than a year while all of the other cities and Board of Supervisors have signed on.

“We would welcome them passing this emergency resolution,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the county’s climate authority. “It really helps coalesce the jurisdiction’s thought around the issue. Passing a resolution is the first step and, in some ways, the easiest part.”

Callinan, who sets the City Council’s agenda for meetings and served as Rohnert Park’s climate authority representative last year, said he couldn’t recall the resolution coming across his desk. He said the city has done its part by meeting all state mandates regarding climate change, and city staff is already busy enough maintaining services like utilities during the pandemic and shouldn’t be stretching itself to focus on anything else, such as the general plan addition.

“I just didn’t think that it’s important to spend extra staff time on. I just feel like right now we’re doing everything we can for climate change for Rohnert Park,” Callinan said in an interview, citing a LEED Gold certification the city received in 2009 for renovations to its City Hall. “I think we have climate change, yes I do. I do believe humans cause a part of it. Is it all of it? I’m not a scientist, just a general contractor.”

Mackenzie, who helped found the county’s climate authority, doubled down on the need for the city to both adopt the climate emergency resolution, as well as update the general plan with a separate section specifically addressing the issue. If reelected to his seventh term, Mackenzie, the city’s current vice mayor, also stands to be appointed mayor and could have an outsized role in shaping Rohnert Park’s policy on the matter next year, and the remainder of his term.

“My platform is very clear and my words are to insist on a robust climate change element as part of our new general plan,” Mackenzie said. “I’m the opposite of a climate denier. People who deny that climate change is a reality are the people, in my opinion, who are trying to do a massive degree of hurt to the future of the people living on this planet. To me, it’s an imperative.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

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