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Rohnert Park to consider district-based elections under threat of lawsuit

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Rohnert Park has become the latest local government in Sonoma County to be singled out by lawyers threatening to sue the city if it does not make the switch from at-large elections to district-based races for City Council.

Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman sent a letter to the city earlier this month threatening to sue under the state’s 2001 voting rights law. The firm over the past two years has made similar legal moves against the Santa Rosa, the city’s public school district and Windsor under the same contention — that at-large voting violates state law because it limits racial minorities’ ability to elect representative candidates.

All three entities made the switch in part to avoid a costly legal battle. Statewide, more than 100 local governments have switched election systems under threat of litigation by Shenkman or other attorneys.

Shenkman’s Oct. 11 letter to Rohnert Park prompted the city to schedule a closed-session item on Tuesday’s agenda for discussion with legal counsel. Shenkman requested a response from the city by Nov. 26 as to whether it will willingly make the change or expect to face a lawsuit.

“Voting within the city of Rohnert Park is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution,” the letter reads. “We urge the city to voluntarily charge its at-large system.”

City Manager Darrin Jenkins said over the next few weeks Rohnert Park will consider the change to its voting process, which would take effect for the November 2020 election. The city of nearly 43,000 is the third largest in Sonoma County and is governed by a five-member council.

“If the city of Rohnert Park moves to district elections, the process to decide the district boundaries will be conducted in the open with our residents providing input,” Jenkins said in the written statement. “Whether elected at-large or from districts, I am confident in the Rohnert Park City Council’s continued ability to effectively lead our ‘Friendly City.’”

Shenkman’s letter makes reference to the city’s Latino population, which stood at about 9,000 residents, or about 22% of the overall population, based on 2010 Census data. Since its incorporation in 1962, the city has had only one Latino person on the City Council. Armando Flores served four terms, beginning his first term in 1974 and ending his last in 2006.

Shenkman’s letter said incorrectly that Flores had only been elected once to the council.

The firm last year also made inaccurate claims in its initial letter to Windsor, where it said no Latino had served on the Town Council. In fact three of its members, Esther Lemus, Mark Millan and Dominic Foppoli, are of Latino heritage.

The town of 27,000 nevertheless made the change earlier this year. Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa City Schools two years ago made the same decision after receiving letters from Shenkman. All three entities were set to pay Shenkman’s firm under a provision of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 that entitles plaintiffs who force an election-system change legal fees of up to $30,000.

Of the few California cities that have fought the transition to district elections in court, to date none have won, according to Shenkman. Santa Monica spent $10 million in legal fees on its court fight.

Rohnert Park officials said they have been bracing for the legal threat.

“I’ve been anticipating that Rohnert Park would receive such a letter for at least a couple of years. It’s no surprise,” said Councilman Jake Mackenzie. “I honestly don’t see us mounting a successful challenge. But whether or not we would attempt to do that obviously is a question for the council, and that one cannot predict.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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