Longtime Sonoma County transportation official Jake Mackenzie ousted from regional policy boards

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In a stunning rebuke, veteran Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie was stripped by his own City Council Tuesday night of influential posts on the SMART board and another regional transit agency.

The move sharply diminishes the role of one of Sonoma County’s longest-tenured transportation officials and could impact the county’s ability to attract outside funding for upgrades to rail, road and bicycle pathways, his allies said.

Fellow council members ousted Mackenzie from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, where he had served for 20 years — its longest-serving member ever. The decision in turn removed Mackenzie from contention to retain his role on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board, where he’s served for 15 years and was just last week unanimously elected by peers as vice chairman. He is now ineligible to hold the seat, creating an unexpected vacancy in the agency’s leadership.

Mackenzie, a six-term councilman, suggested the vote was retribution for his decision to back a regional housing initiative without seeking input from fellow council members first. They instead chose Rohnert Park Vice-Mayor Joe Callinan, who sought the position on the Transportation Authority board over Mackenzie’s protests and was backed by two other council members.

Mackenzie slammed Callinan for seeking the seat on the Transportation Authority only a month after he declined to serve as mayor, citing work commitments.

“The guy too busy to be mayor this year evidently lusted after (the) SCTA seat and in so doing screwed me out of my chance to be reappointed to SMART,” Mackenzie said in a statement late Tuesday.

In a chilly environment at the Tuesday meeting, Callinan agreed with fellow council members that Mackenzie had done a “great job over the years” representing Rohnert Park in the regional transportation role. But he also expressed firm interest in the appointment, saying “it could be time for new blood.”

“I am by no means trying to penalize anybody,” Callinan said at the meeting, noting he had interest in the position as far back as five years ago. “I really wanted to be on that committee, and now I have an opportunity to be on it. And I just feel that I want to be on it. By no means do I want anybody to think this is a punishment.”

Mackenzie believed it direct retaliation, however, for his actions on the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, where he is wrapping up two years as chairman.

Earlier this month at a City Council meeting, he faced an hourlong tongue lashing from each of his four fellow council members for backing the CASA Compact, a new 15-year regional initiative to address the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Elements in the plan include state-imposed rental caps, tenant evictions that require just cause and measures that could remove some local controls over land use and zoning, among other provisions.

Callinan, now in his third term, was one of the initiative’s harshest critics on the council. He chided Mackenzie for not presenting the proposal — which will act as a framework for a handful of housing bills in Sacramento this legislative session — or seeking input from the city he represents.

“I’m just very disappointed,” Callinan said at the Jan. 8 meeting. “We’re elected by the citizens of Rohnert Park to represent what’s best for Rohnert Park citizens. On a personal note, I really think somebody has lost their way. I think maybe you’ve been on these committees way too long, and it’s time for change.”

Mackenzie acknowledged he had made a mistake by failing to update the council on the CASA Compact, saying “mea culpa,” but disregarded Callinan’s admonishment as “nonsense.”

Mackenzie was furious Tuesday at the decision to remove him from the Transportation Authority. It ended his tenure with SMART, the regional rail agency that he labored for years to create. He was one of its fiercest advocates.

Mackenzie transportation allies throughout the county bemoaned his loss from the respective boards, given his experience, historical knowledge of the region’s transit corridors and ability to corral state and federal funds to repair roads and continue build-out of the 1-year-old SMART system.

“Jake has been a long-serving, strong, steady hand at SMART,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who served with Mackenzie on the SMART and SCTA boards, said in a written statement. Mackenzie “was able to work closely with his fellow North Bay commissioners to bring real dollars to Sonoma County for a myriad of transportation projects.”

“I’m afraid we will pay for this,” said Deb Fudge, the outgoing SMART board chairwoman and longtime Windsor town councilwoman. “Jake was in the best position at MTC, and with the SCTA and the SMART seats to lobby hard for new big grant dollars for SMART’s bike path. This was a very shortsighted move that will affect our region negatively.”

Mackenzie’s ouster leaves four candidates from the regional transportation agency vying for two seats on the SMART board, including Cloverdale Mayor Melanie Bagby, Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller, Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas and Santa Rosa Vice-Mayor Chris Rogers. The two finalists will be selected Jan. 31 in a vote by representatives for all nine cities in Sonoma County. The SMART board will now also have to elect a new vice-chair at its next meeting Feb. 6.

Rogers, who is actively lobbying for one of the SMART seats, said elected officials cannot recall such a competitive race for a regional committee. The seats are open after longtime Cloverdale Councilwoman Carol Russell opted to retire and vacate the role, and Mackenzie’s four-year term expired.

“I really do think there was a lot of respect for keeping Carol and Jake there four years ago … given their experience with SMART,” said Rogers. “With the opening of Carol’s seat, though, there was a belief in getting a new voice in there to provide some energy and excitement.

“That’s no disrespect to the great work they did, but to really mark out the next phase of SMART train implementation,” he said.

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

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