Rohnert Park poised to protect City Council incumbents in newly proposed district maps

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Rohnert Park City Council meeting

Tuesday, Jan. 14, 5 p.m.

Rohnert Park City Hall

130 Avram Ave., Rohnert Park

The Rohnert Park City Council on Tuesday is set to consider a revised plan for the city’s new system of district-based elections that would protect the three incumbents up for re-election this year from having to run against a fellow council member, and would do the same for at least one other council member whose term is up in 2022.

It is the latest, mysterious turn in Rohnert Park’s now three-month-long transition away from its current at-large voting system for City Council. The shift was spurred by a Southern California attorney who threatened to sue, claiming the at-large system disenfranchises the city’s growing Latino population.

The new maps represent a departure from a preferred map endorsed by four of the five council members at the Dec. 10 meeting. That map would have pitted Mayor Joe Callinan against Councilwoman Gina Belforte in an election this year.

But that scenario is out in the latest maps, which leave Callinan and Belforte clear of each other for re-election. The new maps also safeguard longtime Councilman Jake Mackenzie, the vice mayor, whose term is up this year, and maintain a new district that favors Councilwoman Pam Stafford. She lives on same street as Callinan but would not have to run against him — a race that would have happened this year, before the end of her term in 2022.

So, after three public meetings last year, plus a closed-door session last week, Rohnert Park is poised to advance a set of new districts that maintain the status quo to benefit incumbents — a path that both Callinan and Mackenzie previously said they did not want the city to tread.

“That wasn’t my goal, to make sure I get elected and somebody else,” Callinan said, referring to the new maps that allow him to sidestep Belforte. “We’re doing the best we can and are only human. We want what’s fair for everybody, and fair for our constituents. It’s not that easy.”

The City Council’s first vote is set for Tuesday, with its second formal vote scheduled for Jan. 28.

State law requires that each district must be undivided and include roughly an equal population. But a provision does allow for weighing “continuity of office” — forming districts that do not immediately upend city leadership and maintain voters’ choices for council members.

It’s unclear exactly how the new maps came to be. They were posted to the city’s website on Jan. 7, nearly a month after the council’s last public meeting on the subject, but only a day after a closed-door session in which district maps were discussed, according to Callinan. In the 36-minute session at City Hall, the city consultant presented district maps to council members, Callinan said. City Manager Darrin Jenkins and City Attorney Michelle Marchetta Kenyon both were in the room.

The city made no public report out of the meeting saying what, if anything, had been addressed or decided.

Callinan, who called the meeting, declined to say if any direction had been given about the maps, citing provisions for closed-door meetings that he said allowed him to withhold such information.

Mackenzie acknowledged that council members met to discuss district elections, but declined to elaborate on the closed session.

Rohnert Park City Council meeting

Tuesday, Jan. 14, 5 p.m.

Rohnert Park City Hall

130 Avram Ave., Rohnert Park

Jenkins, the city manager, refused to acknowledge the purpose of the meeting. Any report that tied the council members discussion to the new maps put forward the next day by the city, he said, was “conjecture.”

“The whole reason for closed session is that it’s not made public,” Jenkins said Monday. “My job is to not tell you what they’re about, because it’s a closed session.”

The City Council is set to gather again behind closed doors Tuesday at the start of its regular meeting — a session that Mackenzie said will be about district-based elections. Jenkins, again, would not explain what prompted the meeting other than to say it dealt with potential litigation.

The city on its agenda has now used the same generic rationale — “Conference with legal counsel: Significant exposure to litigation” — with no other identifying details on two occasions to discuss, at least in part, the district maps, according to Mackenzie.

The Brown Act, the state law that requires local government to conduct its business openly and in public, limits the scope of any closed-door sessions, including those based on potential litigation, according to David Snyder, a lawyer who heads the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that focuses on open government.

“It requires that items be narrowly discussed,” Snyder said. “Voting districts are exactly the kind of matter the Brown Act says deserves public discussion. This stuff really matters, so it should be done in the open.”

Mackenzie, who has not said whether he will seek a seventh term, defended the use of closed-session meetings to manage the transition to district-based elections. Each session relies on the guidance of Jenkins and Marchetta Kenyon, the city attorney, he said.

“I’m very comfortable with this process that was forced upon us,” Mackenzie said, referring to the legal threat posed in October by Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman. “Then we come out and have open discussion after closed session and we will continue to do that (Tuesday) night.”

Belforte and Stafford did not return calls for comment Monday.

First-term Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams offered no comment about the closed-door sessions, but reiterated her desire to see the council eventually land on a map that respects the wishes of voters who put the current council members in office.

“We ought to have districts that reflect the current will of the voters, meaning we have existing members in districts where they have an opportunity to defend their seats,” she said. “I’d like to hear what the consultant has to say during our public meeting and I think citizens can look forward to thorough discussion about the benefits of each map. We’ll make our decision from there.”

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

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