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Rohnert Park district-based elections map would force longtime member off the council

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A new district-based map chosen by Rohnert Park’s City Council this week will force a 12-year councilwoman and three-time mayor from office without the chance to seek reelection, opening a fissure among council members working to comply with demands for better representation of the city’s growing Latino population.

Following Tuesday’s vote on the city’s shift away from its at-large election system, Councilwoman Gina Belforte will be forced to exit her seat when her term ends this year. Belforte, 58, questioned the transparency and overall involvement of residents in the process that would result in her eventual ouster if it is approved later this month.

“I’d be concerned if I was the general public right now,” Belforte said in an interview Wednesday. “I just don’t think it’s been done properly or appropriately. I don’t think we’ve done the community any service — not because of me not being able to run in 2020 — but because we really need to include the public, and they should be aware of what’s happening.”

In a rare 3-2 split vote, the council advanced a newly presented map with district boundaries that would create a voter district in Rohnert Park’s southwestern corner, where a third of the city’s roughly 9,000 Latino voters reside. It also creates four other districts with seats on the council, including one where both Belforte and fellow veteran Councilwoman Pam Stafford live.

But instead of forcing Belforte and Stafford into an election to choose who represents that district, the plan ousts Belforte from the council and prevents Stafford from having to run head-to-head for the seat while she serves out her at-large term, which ends in 2022.

A majority of council members voiced interest Tuesday in placing two other districts on the November 2020 ballot along with the heavily Latino district. They include one where Mayor Joe Callinan and first-term Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams reside, and another in the northeastern part of the city where six-term Councilman Jake Mackenzie lives.

In 2022, another district in the city’s southeastern corner and the one where Stafford and Belforte live will be on the ballot.

Belforte backed a 2020 election plan as an alternative that would have included the district with the city’s largest grouping of Latinos, as well as the district where she and Stafford live and the district that includes Callinan and Hollingsworth Adams. If endorsed by the council, that scenario would have left Mackenzie, who has yet to publicly state if he will run for reelection, in the position that Belforte now finds herself — an incumbent without an ability to run.

None of the other council members showed interest in Belforte’s option.

“The process worked,” City Manager Darrin Jenkins said in a written statement. “The council put the district with the highest Latino voting age population first in the next council election. In order to do that, one current council member, unfortunately, is unable to run in 2020.”

In her criticism of the process, Belforte referenced two closed-door sessions called by Callinan in January to discuss the transition to district elections. In at least one of those meetings, the council reviewed maps with a city consultant, Callinan previously said, which brushes up against a state law requiring governmental deliberations to be conducted in public.

“You tell me if that wasn’t being transparent,” Belforte said. “That’s not taking care of your community; that’s taking care of yourself.”

On Thursday, Callinan declined a previously scheduled interview, saying in a text message he would talk more about district elections after the process is finished. Stafford also didn’t return messages left over two days, and has not responded to interview requests from The Press Democrat for several months.

At the Tuesday council meeting, however, Callinan — who is also up for reelection this year — voiced regret over the outcome, which he voted against with Belforte.

“How bad was that? Isn’t that ugly,” he said after the decision. “It’s not what we wanted, people, but we were forced into that.”

Rohnert Park is pursuing district elections after receiving a legal threat in October over the city’s at-large voting system for seats on the City Council. In the letter, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman alleged the election process disenfranchised the city’s growing Latino population and therefore violates the state’s voting rights law.

City officials have rejected the accusation but chose to pursue changes to the election system to avoid a costly legal battle. Of the small number of California cities that have defended themselves in court after a similar threat from Shenkman, several have spent millions of dollars in legal fees, and none has prevailed.

But Belforte questioned the council’s decision to embrace a new map unveiled at Tuesday’s council meeting after Callinan last month called for a pause in the process of moving ahead with a different map the council previously favored. The earlier selection would have protected Callinan, Belforte and Mackenzie, who is currently serving as vice mayor, from having to run against a fellow council member in 2020 but ignored calls from a handful of residents to create a separate district for the city’s A and B neighborhood sections, which are largely Latino.

The map approved Tuesday was submitted by resident Marci Akin, who was not known to have attended council meetings nor have had a prior interest in the district-based election process, Belforte said. Akin could not be reached Wednesday or Thursday, and messages left for her went unreturned.

Of the few residents who have participated in the city’s map-drawing process now into its fourth month, most failed to create one that met the required criteria, including boundaries that are unbroken and with nearly equal populations in each district.

“I don’t want to attack someone’s ability to be brilliant,” said Belforte, “but I do think it’s suspicious. I just think it’s either incredibly lucky, or that there was assistance.”

Hollingsworth Adams acknowledged Akin is a friend of about 15 years, but denied that she had discussed district elections with her, let alone helped create the map posted to the city’s website on Feb. 4 and ultimately chosen by the council.

“Nothing seems odd to me. It just doesn’t,” said Hollingsworth Adams, who has signaled interest in moving to avoid having to run against Callinan in the district where they both live. Her current term is not up until 2022.

Mackenzie, who said he was “no doubt” in a better position than Belforte following the Tuesday meeting, also defended the council’s choices in its switch to district-based elections, under the advisement of the city attorney.

“I believe that the process was done properly. I’ve no reason to feel otherwise,” he said. “I wanted this process to be completed, and then to have an opportunity to decide whether to run for a seventh term, so I’m happy to have an opportunity to make that decision.”

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

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