We want your input. A few weeks ago I shared that Rohnert Park is transitioning from at-large voting for city council members to district-based elections. The city council formally approved this direction at their Nov. 12 meeting. Transitioning will take several months, with the final action by the city council expected in January.
Under the current system, city council candidates can live anywhere in Rohnert Park and all city residents can vote for any council candidates. In a by-district election system, the city will be divided into five geographic districts, each with its own city council representative. Councilmember candidates must live within their districts. Only residents of that district can vote in their respective district’s election. The first election under the new district system will take place Nov. 3, 2020. During that election three city council seats will be up for election.
We are holding a series of meetings to collect public input on district boundaries and share draft maps of the five districts. We welcome your participation in these meetings, which are expected to be held at city hall on Nov. 26, Dec. 10, Jan. 14 and Jan. 28 at 5 p.m. in the council chambers at 130 Avram Ave. We look forward to your participation.
The City Attorney’s office has retained an expert demographer to assist with the creation and evaluation of draft district maps. There are numerous criteria to consider in forming districts including, for example, maintaining clear boundaries and balancing the number of residents across districts. While Rohnert Park is divided into sections, creating districts will not be as simple as grouping some sections together to form a district. For example, there are residents on the west side of Highway 101 but not enough to create a stand-alone district.
One key decision that the city council made at the Nov. 12 meeting is to establish five districts, each with its own councilmember. The position of mayor will rotate among the five councilmembers, as has been the tradition in Rohnert Park since our beginning. The alternative was to establish four districts and have a separately-elected mayor.
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.
While we believe that the current at-large system works well for Rohnert Park, we are moving to a by-district election system due to a threat of a lawsuit from a law firm specializing in suing cities and school districts alleging racially polarized voting occurs in Rohnert Park, which is a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. While the city disagrees with the claim, no city or school district has successfully defended at large elections under the California Voting Rights Act. Cities who have tried have spent millions of dollars on attorney fees and ultimately lost. Rather than spending money to fight a lawsuit with an uncertain outcome, the city is changing to a by-district election system.
State law requires the city to complete the by-district election transition process by Feb. 10, 2020 in order to cap the city’s liability to a potential plaintiff at $30,000. The process requires five public meetings within a 90 day period. Unfortunately, this will occur around the winter holidays. If the city does not meet the deadlines, the city’s liability would not be capped and the city would be exposed to a very costly legal challenge.
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 four additional meetings between now and the end of Jan.