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Rohnert Park council passes climate change resolution, sharpening focus on crisis

The Rohnert Park City Council last week passed a resolution declaring climate change an emergency and pledging to respond to it — the last city in Sonoma County to do so.

Sonoma County and all nine cities have now all declared a climate emergency, joining 23 nations — including those in the European Union — and 139 cities across the United States, according to a news release issued by local advocacy group Sonoma County Climate Mobilization.

It took an election cycle to bring Rohnert Park around.

The previous council stalled passage of the emergency resolution, put forward by Sonoma County’s Regional Climate Protection Authority, for over a year even as other cities adopted it.

Climate change became an issue in the 2020 council election, which saw three new members elected, ousting two incumbents. (One, longtime Councilman Jake Mackenzie, favored a stronger stance on climate change; the other, Mayor Joe Callinan, felt the city’s actions were sufficient and cited other competing priorities.)

The council’s March 9 declaration, adopted unanimously, along with earlier guidance to staff this year, signals that Rohnert Park won’t be sidestepping the global issue any longer, council members said.

“We are not ignoring the climate crisis and we are taking action against local climate impacts,” said Councilman Willy Linares, one of the three newcomers. “We’re going to do it the right way and our way, understanding who we are as a city.”

Several residents spoke up against the move, most seeking to keep City Hall focused on core services.

“We elected each of you as our city council members to handle the basic necessities of the city of Rohnert Park such as our roads, sewer, water, garbage, parks, public safety and to protect our civil liberties,” a resident named Debbie Laboy, according to captioning for the city’s online meeting. “We did not hire you to hire other people to address issues beyond our control such as climate change.”

Portions of her testimony were echoed verbatim by several other residents.

The resolution commits the city to giving greater sway and stake to climate safeguards in local policymaking.

Rohnert Park City Hall also is hiring a city liaison to advance climate goals, including reduced carbon emissions and speeding projects that address climate-related inequities. The cost of the new post will be about $200,000 a year in pay and benefits, according to city staff.

Though the resolution aligned the city of about 42,000 people with urban giants such as San Francisco and New York, Rohnert Park will seek craft its own ways to confront the climate crisis, Linares said.

Other council members agreed. Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, another of the newly elected trio, cited the catastrophic wildfires of the past five years, including the lives lost in 2017, saying the time for action was now.

“Rohnert Park is its own entity and we are doing this for the future of our children,” she said.

The new council has made combating climate change one of its overarching goals, alongside moves to address homelessness and bolstering trust in the Department of Public Safety, which provides police and fire services.

The climate-related policies will be borne out in moves to reduce emissions in new buildings and in overhauling transportation networks, said Mayor Gerard Giudice, offering two tangible examples of how things would change.

Giudice defeated Callinan in last year’s election. Like the other newcomers, he ran on a slate of progressive stances, including moves to forestall climate change and adapt to its impacts.

The two other incumbents split on the issue last year: Councilwoman Pam Stafford supported Callinan’s status quo position, while Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams joined Mackenzie in aiming to make climate change a top focus for the city.

Climate activists have cheered Rohnert Park’s pivot. On Monday, some even went so far as to single out Sonoma County as the first in the nation to have all its local governments on board with an emergency resolution — though San Francisco may have earned that acclaim as far back as 2019.

Though Rohnert Park was a late addition to that growing roster, its officials have nonetheless been a part of the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority — an entity directed and funded by local governments to promote collaboration and unified policymaking on the issue. Its 12-member governing board includes a Rohnert Park representative, and for many years Mackenzie was it. He has been succeeded by Giudice.

RCPA staff also have coordinated with city staff as they drafted a countywide plan to become carbon neutral by 2030, said Tanya Narath, the director of climate programs for the RCPA. Its board voted on March 8 to adopt that plan, which calls for Sonoma County to become carbon neutral by 2030, 15 years ahead of California’s own net neutrality goal.

Rohnert Park’s new stance will lend resources and momentum to that goal, Narath said.

“The next phase — which is really a much harder task — is getting our jurisdictions to undertake the hard work that’s needed to get to carbon neutrality in nine years,“ said Pete Gang, of Sonoma County Climate Mobilization, a branch of the national Climate Mobilization group.

“The pace of government is slow and plodding,” he said. “It’s evolved that way for a reason but the pace of government is just not appropriate for dealing with an emergency like the climate emergency.”

Ann Hancock, co-founder of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Center, which has been at the heart of local initiatives to spur green energy development and reduce the carbon footprint, said the ambitious goals adopted in Sonoma County ought to be emulated statewide. She’s embarked on a new campaign that will enlist cities to lobby Sacramento for net carbon neutrality in California by 2030.

Windsor and Sebastopol have already signed on, she said, noting that such a state platform in line with Sonoma County’s goals could free up state funding to transform local climate campaigns.

“It will enable local governments to reach their own targets,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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