Rohnert Park is transitioning from at-large voting for city council members to district-based elections. The process of transitioning will take several months with the final action by the city council expected in January. Over the next few months the city will conduct a series of five meetings to collect public input on district boundaries and share draft maps of the five districts.
Modifying the electoral system will change the way Rohnert Park conducts city council elections. Under the current system of at-large elections, city council candidates can live anywhere in Rohnert Park and all city residents can vote for any council candidates. In a district-based system, the city will be divided into five individual geographic districts, each with its own separate city council representative. Councilmember candidates must live within the district in order to campaign. Only residents of that district can vote in their respective councilmember’s election. The first election under the new district system will take place on Nov. 5, 2020. Three city council seats will be up for election at that time.
The city’s decision to change electoral system is in response to a threat of a lawsuit from a law firm specializing in suing cities and school districts alleging violations of the California Voting Rights Act. The California Voting Rights Act prohibits jurisdictions with at-large voting systems if the court rules that protected groups are disadvantaged in elections. The city disagrees with the claim that the current system uniquely disadvantages minority communities in council elections. However, no city or school district has successfully defended at large elections under the act. Cities who have tried have spent millions of dollars on attorney fees and ultimately lost. Rather than spend tax payer monies fighting the lawsuit with an uncertain outcome, the city is changing to district elections.
On Nov. 12, 2019, the city council will consider a resolution committing to transitioning to district elections and will hold the first of a series of five public meetings to obtain public input and comment. The city will be using an expert demographer to assist with the creation and evaluation of draft district maps. The districts need to be balanced in population using the 2010 census data. Then, in 2021 after the 2020 census data is compiled and released, the city will rebalance the council districts before the 2022 election.
State law requires the city to complete the district election transition process within 90 days and requires five meetings in a 45 day period. Unfortunately, this period will occur around the winter holidays. If the city does not meet the deadlines, it can be forced to pay millions to the plaintiff’s attorney and still be required to go to district elections. One of the city’s values is fiscal responsibility, so it wants to avoid that outcome.
Speaking as the city manager for Rohnert Park for the last six years, I am confident that the city council will continue to effectively lead our community regardless of how its members are selected. Being elected from districts need not change the way councilmembers care for our entire community.
I encourage residents to share their thoughts on city council district boundaries through the five meetings between now and early Feb.