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Sonoma County releases documents it says formed basis for board’s confidential redistricting meeting

Talk of west county residents pooling money to hire a lawyer, angry social media posts about the county’s redistricting process and emails alleging gerrymandering formed the basis for a now-controversial closed-door meeting last month of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, records obtained by The Press Democrat show.

However, the documents released by the county do not contain an explicit threat of litigation. The records include handwritten notes from county government’s top civil attorney and texts between Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and County Administrator Sheryl Bratton.

The county provided the documents Thursday in response to a Press Democrat request for public records that County Counsel Robert Pittman said formed the basis for the board’s move into a confidential closed-door session Nov. 19 centered on the county’s fraught redistricting process.

One board member, Chris Coursey, has called that pretense flawed and county officials’ attempt to explain the reasoning “bogus.”

The dispute over the closed meeting reveals how contentious redistricting has become behind the scenes, while also providing a rare glimpse into disagreements aired privately — outside of taxpayers’ and constituents’ view — among county leaders.

Hopkins, the board chair, brought the accusations of gerrymandering to the attention of Bratton and Pittman on Nov. 18 and asked for a closed session, the records show and interviews confirmed.

In two pages of handwritten notes dated Nov. 18 — one day before the confidential meeting — Pittman wrote that he reviewed “dozens of posts” on Hopkins’ Facebook page that “assert claims of racial and political gerrymandering.”

Hopkins has publicly described emails she received with similar claims, and she told Bratton that she had received “oral comments from various individuals that they had pledged $ to challenge the ARC map,” according to Pittman’s notes.

A “handful of comments came from credible sources,” Pittman wrote in the notes. The word “very” is crossed out before “credible.” The sources included “known activists” and current or former officials at the county and city government level, Pittman wrote.

Gerrymandering is generally defined as manipulating electoral boundaries to favor one party or class in elections. Partisan gerrymandering was given broad legal protection by the U.S. Supreme Court under a highly controversial 2019 ruling that split the court 5-4.

The disclosed records include a social media post captured by Hopkins and 10 emails to Hopkins and other supervisors that use the term gerrymandering. They raise fresh questions about how county officials determined they faced a clear enough threat of litigation to justify a closed-door meeting on redistricting — a topic of much public interest and sharp community debate in recent months.

In an interview last week, Pittman said his office assesses the actual chances someone claiming wrongdoing by county government will sue. That includes analyzing people’s and organizations’ resources and motivation, he said. The county does not need a direct threat of a lawsuit to justify a closed session, he said.

“The emails + social media posts likely establish sufficient grounds to support closed session discussion in light of (the U.S. Department of Justice) notice all jurisdictions and legal challenges being mounted to redistricting maps in other CA counties,” he wrote in his notes released by the county.

Pittman was referring to a guidance document posted Sept. 1 by the Department of Justice indicating the federal agency would scrutinize local governments’ compliance with the U.S. Voting Rights Act as they engaged in the once-a-decade act of drawing new political jurisdictions.

Supervisor Chris Coursey has questioned the legal basis for the board’s Nov. 19 confidential meeting, which he said Hopkins used to make a political attack on him, accusing him of rigging redistricting for her loss and his gain.

Hopkins has denied making such an allegation and disputed Coursey’s characterization of the meeting.

“What he is alleging is false,” Hopkins said.

But “a threat of litigation involves a set of facts,” Coursey said in an interview.

“I didn’t hear any set of facts in that closed session. A closed session about the threat of litigation includes a proposed corrective action. I did not hear any proposal of a corrective action in that special session. (Pittman) mentioned a Department of Justice letter from September. I do not recall any mention of that letter in that special session.”

In an email, Pittman wrote that the letter “was discussed with the board as part of my opening comments to lay the legal framework for their closed-session discussion.”

Board reversal amplifies scrutiny

The controversy surfaced and snowballed in the aftermath of the board’s abrupt reversal on a new blueprint for the five supervisor districts. Four members of the board have chosen to reject a proposal advanced weeks ago by the county’s Advisory Redistricting Committee after its extensive public process.

With Coursey the lone holdout, the board on Nov. 29 advanced a map based on a consultant’s draft proposal — released to the public less than two hours before that meeting.

Since then, Coursey, who favored the advisory commission’s map and its public process, has escalated his criticism of the Board of Supervisors’ handling of redistricting. At the Dec. 7 meeting, he slammed the county over its justification for the Nov. 19 closed-door meeting, calling it a “fig leaf of a threat of litigation.”

Coursey’s comments led the board to vote unanimously to waive confidentiality over the county’s reasoning for holding the closed-door meeting. The Press Democrat then requested documents serving as the basis for that decision and cited by Pittman.

The records released by the county, including the post captured by Hopkins on what appears to be Facebook and the emails to Hopkins and other supervisors, date as far back as October.

None convey an overt threat to sue the county. Instead, the post and emails air complaints about county redistricting and the proposals that have emerged from the process.

Some took aim at the advisory commission’s wish to put Rohnert Park into Hopkins’ sprawling 5th District, taking in the west county. That proposal smacked of gerrymandering, the emails alleged.

“It would be kind of like Gerrymandering so that minorities don’t have a chance of equal representation,” Occidental resident Kathleen Barry wrote Oct. 10 in an email to all five supervisors.

“This smacks of politicos, businesses, tribes or all the above, to further compromise coastal and west county values by gaining further access for their own,” Douglas Emery, a Sebastopol resident, wrote Nov. 3 in an email to Hopkins. “Please help to put an end to this absurd gerrymandering for the purposes of a few,” he wrote.

The emails were part of a torrent of opposition in October and November from west county residents and Rohnert Park officials displeased by the advisory commission’s map. The 19-member advisory redistricting panel, appointed by supervisors, was unanimous in recommending the blueprint to the board.

But opponents said Rohnert Park, the county’s third-largest city, had little in common with a mostly rural district taking in the lower Russian River and entire Sonoma Coast.

Among supervisors, Hopkins led the charge against the proposal, a stance that exposed the board to blowback from commissioners who said their extensive work had been disregarded, their voices sidelined.

Hopkins pushed for closed session

The records released by the county included five emails that came in after the Nov. 19 closed-door meeting. Officials are continuing to search for other records responsive to The Press Democrat’s request, county attorneys said.

The disclosed records show Hopkins pushed to add the accusations of gerrymandering in the redistricting commission’s map to the closed-session agenda the day before the Nov. 19 board meeting. The agenda already called for a closed session on other matters.

On Nov. 18, Hopkins texted Bratton at 7:05 a.m. asking for an addition to the agenda, citing the receipt of “multiple accusations of political and racial gerrymandering.”

“I am concerned we are setting ourselves up for litigation,” Hopkins wrote, according to emails released by the county. Bratton said she would consult Pittman, the county counsel.

Three hours later, Hopkins texted again. “Any update?” she asked.

Bratton texted back to say she had spoken with Pittman and they would add the item to the agenda, records show.

Hopkins has said publicly she did not believe the commission’s map was gerrymandered, but she has faced criticism for using the charged term during the board’s Nov. 2 public meeting with commissioners.

Nine women of color who served on the commission have since accused county officials of devaluing their voices, and some have said Hopkins’ insinuation was a slight on their work and part of an attempt to discredit it.

Hopkins has said bringing up gerrymandering was not an accusation but an attempt at dispelling misinformation.

On Nov. 16, she replied to a letter sent by the NAACP Santa Rosa — Sonoma County Branch that contained such criticism.

“I was specifically asking Chair (Ed) Sheffield and Vice Chair (Ana) Horta to explain why it looked like the map was gerrymandered, but actually wasn’t,” Hopkins wrote in an email released by the county.

“I often ask questions about feedback I’ve received from constituents in order to dispel misinformation and get accurate information on the public record,” she continued. “I was trying to get the (Advisory Redistricting Commission) to publicly explain why, and how, the map was drawn. This actually legally helps to protect the county from lawsuits against the map, if that were the map we were to choose.”

Notice of legal threat came after Nov. 19 meeting

The closed session followed a pivotal board meeting on Nov. 16 during which Coursey, Gorin and Gore indicated they would support the redistricting commission’s map, while Hopkins and Rabbitt said they would prefer exploring other maps.

The signal that a board majority would carry forward the map placing Rohnert Park in the 5th District prompted “a loose group” of west county residents to explore suing the county, said former 5th District Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, a member of the opposition group. Those discussions lasted three to four days, he said.

Carpenter, who has been a loud critic of the redistricting commission’s map, said moving Rohnert Park into the 5th District was “poorly conceived” and threatened to diminish the political cohesion of the largely rural district.

“I think it was largely nonsense fueled by ignorance and it wasn’t going to get to where certain people wanted it to be,” Carpenter said, referring to the county’s aim of achieving equity through redistricting.

Carpenter pledged $5,000 to help cover the fees for any legal challenge. In an interview with The Press Democrat, he said the group got as far as discussing what attorney to hire but opted not to move forward when they learned board members were shifting their stances.

Carpenter declined to specify who else was in the group eyeing a lawsuit or identify any attorneys named or involved in that discussion.

Carpenter said he did not mention the lawsuit to supervisors until December, weeks after the closed-session meeting.

“I did not talk about litigation. That’s not what you do when you talk to people on the board,” he said.

Documents released by county officials include an email Carpenter sent to Hopkins on Dec. 7 where he noted his $5,000 pledge and referred to the redistricting commissioners as “unknown persons on the non-elected Advisory Committee” who recommended one map to the board instead of multiple.

“I pledged this legal fee to protect the rural life style build up over fifty years,” Carpenter wrote.

Hopkins said she was “aware” that some west county residents were discussing a lawsuit but had not spoken with anyone directly involved when the effort was active.

In an interview Friday, Coursey said he had not heard of the pledge to pay for litigation before reading Carpenter’s Dec. 7 email. Carpenter’s pledge did not come up in the closed meeting, Coursey said.

Reviewing Pittman’s notes, Coursey said they seemed accurate. But he still did not see a clear threat of litigation. He stood by his criticism of the closed session, he said.

“That ‘some people say’ that there are social media posts … it was never specific ‘this person is threatening to sue us,’” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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