Subscribe

Rohnert Park council details threats over fireworks ban after fire outside councilman’s house

“No one has ever received a physical threat like this before,” Mayor Gerard Giudice said Tuesday night after a special council meeting in response to the weekend fire set outside of Willy Linares’ home.|

A garbage can filled with fireworks and set ablaze in front of a Rohnert Park councilman’s home late Sunday is the latest in a series of threats made against three of the council’s newest members since March when they first voted in favor of a fireworks ban in the city, the elected officials detailed Tuesday.

The escalating abuse has led the city to involve the FBI, Mayor Gerard Giudice said during an interview Tuesday evening. The latest came in a suspected attack on Councilman Willy Linares, whose garbage can was found packed with fireworks and engulfed in flames July 4.

“No one has ever received a physical threat like this before,” the mayor said Tuesday night after a special council meeting in response to the fire set outside of Linares’ home.

“It’s never escalated to this level. This is absolutely disgusting,” Giudice added.

He said some of the threats, in particular those posted on Facebook from a person who claims to be a fireworks supplier from Arizona, have been reported to the FBI.

In those particular posts, which the mayor said he received on his personal Facebook page, the man threatened to ship “hundreds of fireworks” to Giudice’s neighborhood “to be used to bring a reign of terror down on” where the mayor lives.

Rohnert Park police have also launched a criminal investigation into the trash can fire, which Linares said he discovered around 10:30 p.m. Sunday after he was alerted by a neighbor.

After firefighters put out the blaze, Linares said he saw that many fireworks had been stuffed in the container. He said the fireworks did not belong to anyone in his home and that neither he nor any of his relatives had placed them in the bin.

“Is this payback?” the 36-year-old first-term council member asked in a comment he attached to his Sunday night Instagram post about the fire. “My heart wants to believe this is a coincidence. Regardless, my family was put in danger,” he added.

On March 23, he was among a majority of council members who cast their first round of votes in favor of a ban on fireworks in the city.

On April 27, a subsequent council vote approved an ordinance imposing the ban, but on May 25, the council was forced to shelve the measure after residents presented the City Clerk with a petition calling for the issue to be placed on the ballot.

Rohnert Park voters are now set to weigh the future of fireworks sales and private use in their city in a Sept. 14 special election. In Sonoma County, Cloverdale is the lone other city among nine that allows firework sales.

The question has Rohnert Park residents divided over a ban intended to address chronic wildfire danger and public safety concerns. A number of civic groups and local community clubs, however, rely on annual proceeds from fireworks sales to support their programs.

“I do believe the intent was to let me know that people are not happy with the decision that was made to ban fireworks,” Linares said in an interview. “An action like this sends out a loud message.”

Linares said he has also received multiple messages on social media stating that because of his support of the ban “it’s going to be a war zone in Rohnert Park.”

He said he believes the threats are coming from residents who rely on firework sales to support their nonprofit groups, as well as those who are resisting change in the city.

Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, the mayor added, has been attacked personally because of her support for the ban. Elward, Linares and Giudice form the majority that supported the ban. All were elected in November last year in a transformational change in city leadership, ushering in a more progressive and diverse council.

They have endured abuse over the fireworks discussion from nearly the start, the mayor said Tuesday.

In March, while taking a phone call from “someone in the community” who objected to the ban, the caller began shouting racial slurs at Elward, Giudice said.

The vice mayor, the first Black woman on the council, was raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an African country.

Giudice and Elward came to power after defeating longtime incumbents last year. Linares won a newly created district-based seat without an incumbent.

Councilmember Susan Hollingsworth Adams, who has lived in Rohnert Park for 50 years, condemned the backlash that has been aimed at her fellow council members.

“This horrendous behavior is not a reflection of everyone in the community,” Adams said during an interview Tuesday night. “I’m sad this happened to Willy and his family. No one in our community should have to go through this.”

She and Pam Stafford opposed the fireworks ban.

Linares, who is Latino, said he believes the threats go far beyond fireworks.

“You only have to peel back a few layers to see the reason why this is happening. This looks like it’s about fireworks on the surface but if you look deeper this has much to do with the color of my skin,” he said.

“The type of anger that manifests this type of hate is not just related to fireworks,” Linares added.

Giudice said he would not allow the threats to intimidate him or the other council members.

“We are resolute. We will not succumb to these bullying tactics,” the mayor said. “Come after me, leave my council members alone.”

He added, “I feel responsible for the safety of my council. I will stand strong and I will defend my council members. We’ll get through this. I’m proud of them for remaining strong. I stand with them.”

Also on Tuesday, Sonoma County's nine mayors released a joint statement denouncing the fire set Sunday night outside Linares' home.

“Let’s put this into perspective: someone almost burned down a council member’s home with his family inside, presumably because they disagreed with his vote. Not only have they failed to persuade anyone to change their opinion, but they’ve also proven themselves to be a coward for not coming forward immediately,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said in the statement.

Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety officials said the fire is under criminal investigation and that investigators are hoping Linares’ neighbors will report anything they may have witnessed that night.

As of Tuesday evening, authorities had released no updates on the status of the investigation.

“In a society where our vote is the highest expression of our democratic freedoms, an attack on an elected official is an attack on democracy itself,” said Cloverdale Mayor Marta Cruz. “I stand with Councilmember Linares and his family and the Rohnert Park City Council and condemn this cowardly act.”

“If this act is truly an attempt to intimidate a City Council member for their vote to represent the whole of their citizenry, it is reprehensible and cowardly. Councilmember Linares deserves the utmost respect while serving his community with dignity and courage,” added Cotati Mayor John C. Moore.

The Rohnert Park council voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with the Sept. 14 special election.

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @searchingformya.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Mayor Giudice's comments about FBI involvement came in an interview after the special council meeting.

Mya Constantino

Features reporter

Stories can inspire you, make you laugh, cry and sometimes, heal. I love a feature story that can encapsulate all of those things. I cover the interesting people that exist around us, art and music that move us and the hidden gems that make Sonoma County pretty cool. Let's explore those things together.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette