John Wooden was the legendary coach at UCLA. He motivated and led his teams to ten national championships in a 12-year period, including seven in a row. Often quoted he said, “The greatest failure of all is the failure to act when action is needed.” That may be playing out in Rohnert Park regarding the upcoming city council elections this November.
For context, in late 2019 the city moved to change the way elections for city council are held. Under pressure from a threatened lawsuit, with possible legal and judgment costs potentially in the millions, they voted to move from at-large elections to by district elections. At-large elections are where citizens of the city would vote for all city council members with the top vote getters being elected. In contrast, by-districts are where the city is carved up into several neighborhoods or sections. During a city council election for that district, only the voters of that district could vote for candidates from their district.
The change protected the city from additional monetary loss, but it generated turmoil, confusion and frustration for the citizens of Rohnert Park. Without diving deeply into the details, the process has been criticized as flawed. Over a dozen maps were presented to the city council for consideration. The whole purpose of having districts was to give disadvantaged communities or other communities of interest, a better chance of electing a representative to more fully represent their views to the city. The map ultimately chosen, was seen by many to be an “incumbent” protection map. That is except for one incumbent, who was blocked from running for reelection by the sequencing of seats for the 2020 election. The Latino community
was upset because in their view the one council member who worked most closely with them, would not be able to continue being a voice for their community.
Many citizens spoke out. Yet they were unable to influence the council’s decision before the vote on adoption of districts and sequencing of elections. Gerard Giudice, a local business owner and incoming president of the Rotary Club of Rohnert Park-Cotati said, “I know that there are ever growing concerns that the council is not listening” to the citizens of their city on this issue. As reported this week, a citizen group has formed to push back on the council’s decisions and lack of transparency.
Chris Borr, the spokesperson for FAIR-RP, said, “My concern is that the mayor is obstructing the democratic process.” He reported that Council member Belforte requested a discussion of the FAIR RP proposals be put on the agenda. Vice Mayor McKenzie agreed, but added that any legal review by the city attorney be part of that discussion also. Mayor Callinan replied “Okay, you got it.” The purpose of the discussion would be, given the communities input, whether the city should consider a change from their previous decisions on districts or sequencing of elections.
But it wasn’t placed on the May 26 agenda. If the council doesn’t discuss or reconsider the election process in May, Borr fears they may not then have time to hold required public hearings or votes in June. The deadline for candidates wanting to run for 2020 elections is early July. Past that, any changes would have to wait until 2022. At a minimum the sequencing of elections is a change many in the Latino community and other proponents of revision are seeking. The first district has a slightly higher proportion of Latinos, but they don’t have a prospective candidate to run. They are willing to wait until 2022 to elect a representative from the first district. In contrast, the fifth district has the second largest Latino representation as well as the largest geographical area including all the area of the city west of Highway 101. This area includes many other disadvantaged groups as well. Making this simple change would allow Belforte to run for reelection if she chose to do so. She could then continue to be a voice for Latinos in the city.
This is a story that continues to develop. I was able to briefly discuss it with the vice mayor. He supported Belforte’s request because he believes a public discussion is required for transparency whatever the ultimate decision is made. I couldn’t reach Belforte for comment before story deadline.
For some, the failure to place this issue on the May 26 agenda, may be the “failure to act” which Coach Wooden warned us about.