At a lengthy city council meeting on June 9, the hot topic towards the end of the meeting was item 6.E. This was a report from the city attorney regarding Proposal Submitted by FAIR-RP. For weeks, this advocacy group and multiple public comments urged the city council to reconsider Ordinance 944. It was passed in February 2020, to move from at-large to by-district council elections.
Tonight, once again over two dozen public comments urged the city council to “do the right thing” and “fix” the February decision.
The city’s attorney in her report of analysis on the proposal, first highlighted the process the City of Rohnert Park went through prior to the adoption of Ordinance 944. The city received a letter from a potential plaintiff’s attorney in October 2019. It alleged the city’s at-large election process violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). To avoid potential significant litigation costs, the city council adopted a resolution in November 2019. They declared their intent to transition to by-district elections. Holding seven public hearings, ultimately, they adopted this ordinance that established five districts and the sequencing of elections.
The FAIR-RP proposal, which was previously reported, was then recapped for the city council. The city attorney expressed her concerns that adopting the FAIR-RP proposal would potentially open the city to additional litigation. She expressed concerns that the temporary addition of two at-large districts and allowing all five districts to vote in 2020 for either two or four-year seats would be a hybrid approach. She also said any change of ordinance would require compliance with the CVRA to include public hearings and other legal requirements. Further she stated, establishing a two-year term of election would conflict with state law. The exception she reported was if a city was just incorporating or in process of reorganization. The proposal isn’t covered by the exception in her opinion. Finally, as a practical not legal consideration, she didn’t think a change was feasible in time for the July 1 deadline required for the November 2020 elections.
Voters from all five districts demanded the city council at the very least change the sequencing of districts in 2020. District One, with the largest Latino population, has indicated their community doesn’t have enough time to find, organize and run a viable candidate especially considering the shelter-in-place orders. Yet District 5 which is the second largest Latino population has a candidate ready and able to run for reelection. The alternative to FAIR-RP’s proposal is to simply let District 5 vote in 2020 and District 1 in 2022.
The Latino community is expressing that they don’t believe their voices are being heard. After the attorney’s report and public comments, Council member Gina Belforte started the question and comment period. She stated, “this is not about me.” Since she is the council member who is blocked from running for reelection in 2020 because she lives in District 5, she felt the need to make that clear. She said, “I have nothing to do with FAIR-RP.” According to her, she doesn’t even know three-quarters of the speakers or members of the advocacy group. Yet she predicted that this issue would become “a pivotable moment in the history of Rohnert Park.”
Council member Pam Stafford went next and chose not to respond or ask any questions. She said, I “don’t ever want to get into an argument.” Council member Susan Adams followed saying “in my mind this was wrapped up in February.” She’s “fine with leaving it as it is.” Vice Mayor Mackenzie recalled his early days as a citizen activist that led him into city politics. To set the record straight he pointed out that all five council members accepted this ordinance on first reading; but on second reading the request to reconsider was defeated by a 3-2 vote with himself and Belforte on the losing end. He said they tried to make a change but were unsuccessful and now we’ve “come to the end of a very long and arduous process.”
That left Mayor Callinan to go last with his comments. He repeated that this whole process wasn’t something the city wanted to have happen. He also said he’s always willing to listen to the citizens of our city. But “we made the decision we made” and “we have beat this horse to death” so he moved on to the next agenda item. And with that – the issue is dead! Or is it? Only time will tell.