Santa Rosa, Healdsburg earn SMART board seats

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For the first time since voters approved taxpayer funding for the North Bay's commuter rail system more than a decade ago, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg will have board seats on SMART, handing new say over its development to the region’s largest city, on the one hand, and to one of its main tourist destinations, on the other.

Mayors from Sonoma County’s nine cities on Thursday night passed over one of their own, Cloverdale’s Melanie Bagby, and selected Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers and Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas to fill two open seats on the 12-member Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board.

Rogers and Naujokas, both first-term members of their respective councils, said they looked forward to representing not just their cities but the entire county on SMART. Their first board meeting is next Wednesday.

“The SMART train is one of the most impactful changes to happen in Sonoma County,” said Rogers. “I’m just excited to help build on the incredible work that has already been done, and keep the promises that were made to voters.”

The taxpayer-funded commuter train system was approved by voters in 2008 as a 70-mile system stretching from Larkspur to Cloverdale, including an adjacent bicycle and pedestrian pathway. A little more than a year into rail operations, the train presently runs a 43-mile stretch from San Rafael to a stop near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. Buildout of the bicycle path stands at just over 16 miles.

“I’m feeling like there’s a lot of work to do,” said Naujokas, who attended the Mayors’ and Councilmembers’ Association meeting and advocated for himself just before the vote. “I think we have a lot of low hanging fruit for the last-mile connectivity and strengthening that connection with bikes and (pedestrians).”

The two board seats were left vacant after the retirement of longtime Cloverdale Councilwoman Carol Russell and the surprising ouster of Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie from a related county transit seat, leaving him ineligible for the SMART post. Mackenzie, an early champion of commuter rail in the North Bay, had served on the SMART board for 15 years and had been set to serve as the board’s vice chairman.

Up to four elected officials had been vying for what looked to be only one open board seat until last week. But then Mackenzie’s fellow Rohnert Park council members stripped him of his board appointment to the county’s Transportation Authority, ruling him out for another term with SMART, and Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller bowed out, citing work commitments.

Santa Rosa officials have long complained that the city had been unrepresented on the SMART board as the rail system was rolled out over the past decade. The lone Santa Rosa city representative to serve on the board, then-Councilman Mike Martini, stepped down in 2005 after two years on the panel.

“Some of you are waiting for the train to come into your communities, but it goes through ours and we have two stations,” Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said, backing Rogers’ selection. “Chris, I think he called absolutely everyone in the county. He’s a go-getter, but what I like about him is he’s got the energy and he gets things done.”

Healdsburg has never had a city representative on the SMART board.

Still, as city officials considered other regional appointments Thursday, additional fallout surfaced over a regional housing initiative that fueled the bitter split between Mackenzie and the his fellow Rohnert Park council members, leading to his removal from SMART.

At stake Thursday night was Mackenzie’s reappointment to the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a post that comes through a recommendation from the mayors’ and councilmembers’ group but is ultimately named by the county’s Board of Supervisors. That mayors’ group delayed their recommendation Thursday in a 6-3 vote against Mackenzie. The rejection came after Mackenzie played a key role supporting a legislative framework to spur housing construction in the Bay Area.

The state-driven initiative is known as the CASA Compact and it’s become a hot-button issue recently across the region.

Mackenzie attended the meeting Thursday to lobby for his reappointment to the MTC, where he has served as chairman the past two years. He emphasized he was the only candidate to submit a letter of interest for the position by the Jan. 9 deadline. Staring directly at two fellow Rohnert Park council members, Joe Callinan and Susan Hollingsworth Adams — who each voted against his transit agency post, effectively knocking him off SMART — Mackenzie made an impassioned appeal for his selection.

In prior interviews, he said he’d been a victim of political retaliation for his support for the housing initiative, which is backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“I’m a Rohnert Park City Council member, but when I sit on the MTC, I’m representing the county and the nine cities,” Mackenzie said Thursday night. He spoke up after Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte, the lone council member who had supported Mackenzie last week, joined the majority in the vote to delay an endorsement on his reappointment.

“I’m just saying, I followed the rules,” Mackenzie said.

Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs, who was also seeking reappointment to serve on a planning committee for a separate regional coalition, the Association of Bay Area Governments — a partner in the disputed housing blueprint — had a vote on her selection delayed as well, on the same 6-3 count. The three cities voting in favor of appointments in both cases were Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Windsor.

Both Combs and Mackenzie will continue in their regional positions in the interim while more applications are received through March 1. Barring a special meeting, the mayors’ group is set to return to the appointments at their next regular gathering in April.

“Well, shoot the messenger,” Combs whispered to Mackenzie following the decision.

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

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been revised to note that Chris Rogers' appointment to the SMART board is not the first time a Santa Rosa councilperson has served on SMART. Then-Councilman Mike Martini was a SMART board member from the board's founding in 2003 until 2005. Healdsburg has never had a city representative on the SMART board.

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