Sonoma County supervisor accuses board of ‘bogus’ closed-session meeting as redistricting dispute escalates
Days before the final scheduled public hearing on a map that will shape Sonoma County politics for a decade, discord over redistricting has risen to a new level amid a feud between some supervisors, accusations of gerrymandering and sharp questions from Santa Rosa leaders about the latest proposal to divide the city’s downtown.
For weeks now, the county’s redistricting has been a politically tense process. It was strained from the start due to the delayed federal delivery of 2020 census data, which left less time for public input. And some proposals pitted the interests of far removed parts of the county, including the coast, against urban areas like Rohnert Park that sought a unified district.
An emotional hourslong meeting Monday unleashed many of those tensions while sparking fresh controversy, with nine women of color from the county’s redistricting commission Saturday sending a scathing letter to the board that suggested supervisors will “commodify equity” if they carry forward with their latest map.
Drawn at Monday’s meeting, the supervisors’ map reversed course on plans to put all of Rohnert Park and the west county in one district, rejecting in doing so the map crafted by the county’s 19-member Advisory Redistricting Commission.
“My district has been carved up like a Christmas ham,” said Santa Rosa Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, who represents neighborhoods surrounding the Santa Rosa Junior College and the city’s northeastern hillsides, including Hidden Valley and Fountaingrove. Big shares of her 25,000 constituents would fall into four different supervisor districts under the new map, she said.
The new map favored by four supervisors splits downtown Santa Rosa in two and keeps Rohnert Park divided in two districts ‒ despite the early wishes of city leaders. It is up for public comment and board discussion at an 8:45 a.m. hearing Tuesday. The board could hold its final vote on the map that day, or post a map with changes and take up a final vote Dec. 14, the day before a state deadline.
Some Santa Rosa city leaders called both the latest proposal and the process flawed, singling out Monday’s meeting as particularly problematic. Supervisors that day generated their latest proposal off of a consultant’s draft released by the county less than two hours before their meeting began.
The supervisors in a single day had replaced a map the public had seen for a month with “a map that’s been out there for less than half a day,” Chris Coursey, the lone voice of dissent on the board, said in the meeting.
In an interview, Coursey, who represents the 3rd District that today takes in central Santa Rosa and most of Rohnert Park, ramped up his criticism, accusing the board of convening last month in a closed-session meeting to discuss redistricting under what he called a “bogus” pretense.
Coursey was referring to a Nov. 19 executive session, where the agenda included the late addition of a discussion on “anticipated litigation.” Under California law, government bodies are allowed to confer with their attorneys behind closed doors to discuss legal threats.
Coursey, however, said Sonoma County Counsel Robert Pittman never presented evidence of a legitimate threat of litigation. Instead, Coursey said, the meeting centered on an accusation behind closed doors from Supervisor Lynda Hopkins that he had improperly influenced the redistricting commission to harm her political career and aid his by adding Rohnert Park to her largely rural west county district.
“The threat of litigation was a pretext for a political attack on me in that meeting,” Coursey said in a Thursday interview.
Hopkins, the current board chair, rejected that characterization, telling The Press Democrat there was a legitimate threat of litigation that Pittman had vetted. Hopkins said she had to defer to Pittman on whether the specifics of the legal threat could be disclosed, but said she had “received word from multiple avenues of litigation” over redistricting.
“I can’t speak to the contents of closed session, but I have never personally attacked or accused Chris Coursey of political malfeasance,” she said.
Pittman also declined to describe the threat, saying the law did not allow him to do so without the consent of the majority of the board.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, in an interview, said there “was a legitimate threat of litigation.”
Supervisor Susan Gorin did not respond to multiple requests for comment and Supervisor James Gore sent a text message Saturday saying he needed to speak with Pittman before answering questions from The Press Democrat about the meeting.
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