Rohnert Park seeks resident input on maps for district-based elections
As it begins transitioning to district-based elections, Rohnert Park is seeking the public’s input on where to draw the boundary lines.
To help residents develop proposed district maps, the city launched on its website an online tool, which is available in English and Spanish and provides guidelines, population counts and details on when and where to submit their proposals.
“This is about engagement. We’re hoping people take advantage of the opportunity to share their thoughts,” said Don Schwartz, assistant city manager. “This tool is a way to do that.”
Residents will have their first chance to present their maps to the City Council and a consultant at Tuesday night’s meeting, the second of five required public hearings.
The five-member City Council decided to move away from at-large elections starting next fall under the recent threat of a lawsuit. A Southern California attorney contacted Rohnert Park last month, alleging the city’s existing system for electing council members deprives Latino residents of proportionate representation.
While council members and City Manager Darrin Jenkins have rejected that claim, the risk of a costly court battle led the city to make the shift.
Of the more than 120 California cities and 200 school districts that have faced similar challenges under the state’s voting rights law - many from the same Malibu attorney, Kevin Shenkman - none that fought it have prevailed, according to National Demographics Corporation, the city’s consultant.
“Everybody I’ve talked to thinks it’s ridiculous and wants us to fight it,” said Vice Mayor Joe Callinan. “But they don’t understand it’s never been won. We can’t fight a losing battle.”
The change in the elections system could pit incumbents - several live in the same vicinity - against one another as soon as November 2020, when three seats will come up for election.
“This is the hand that we’re dealt, and we’ll do the best we can with it,” said Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams, whose first term doesn’t expire until 2022. “Drawing the city into districts, we’re dividing (ourselves) in ways that I don’t believe are helpful. I would like to honor voters’ previous preferences, if at all practicable.”
Each district must be undivided, and all must be roughly even in population.
Rohnert Park has nearly 44,000 residents, although the final maps will be drawn under official figures from the 2010 U.S. Census, which pegged the population at about 41,000.
The districts can also take into account other factors, including established neighborhoods, existing boundaries such as school district lines or major thoroughfares, as well as where current council members live to avoid head-to-head races.
Callinan, who was first elected in 2008, and four-term Councilwoman Pam Stafford live on the same street in the city’s D Section. Mayor Gina Belforte lives in the adjacent F Section. Hollingsworth Adams also lives in the D Section, but plans to move to the southeastern part of the city next to Sonoma State University later this year.
Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who lives in the northeast corner of town, said he will advocate against districts designed to protect incumbents.
He said the process instead should emphasize the other elements permitted by state and federal law, including maintaining related neighborhoods, otherwise known as “communities of interest.”
“I do not think the drawing of district maps should have any connection to individual council members sitting where we are in Rohnert Park,” said Mackenzie.
“It should have to meet the terms of the California voter act, with proper distribution of the numbers of people and communities of interest.”
At their Nov. 12 meeting, council members chose to maintain five equal seats with a rotating mayoral position rather than transition to four districts and an elected mayor, as Windsor opted to do earlier this year under a similar legal threat from Shenkman. The city of Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa City Schools also made the switch to district-based elections in 2018 after receiving letters from Shenkman.
Rohnert Park will pay its consultant $35,000 to help shape the new districts. The firm plans to unveil its first draft maps in December.
Additional public hearings are scheduled for Dec. 10, Jan. 14 and Jan. 28 to finalize the map and adopt an ordinance instituting the change.
The seats held by Callinan, Mackenzie and Belforte are up for election next year. Callinan, who is expected to take over next month as mayor, and Belforte have each confirmed they plan to run for reelection.
Mackenzie, who was first elected in 1996 and is the council’s longest-?serving member, said he has yet to decide if he will seek a seventh term, adding that he first wants to see how the districts are drawn.