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One member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors knew when it was time to call it quits. Sadly, another did not.
The last-minute, surprise announcement by Supervisor Keith Carson in December that after 32 years he would not seek election to a ninth term provides an opportunity for much-needed change.
Voters should not squander it.
Carson selfishly timed his announcement to allow just five days for interested people to decide whether they wanted to mount a potentially costly campaign for an open seat on the county Board of Supervisors. Nevertheless, nine candidates rushed to fill the void in District 5, which includes Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont and north Oakland.
The standout, and our recommendation, is John Bauters, who has repeatedly demonstrated his thoughtful leadership skills as a member of the Emeryville City Council and chair of the boards of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Alameda County Transportation Commission.
Unlike Carson, Supervisor Nate Miley, who is in his 24th year on the Alameda County board, opted to seek reelection. He’s running in District 4, which stretches from southeast Oakland through Castro Valley to Pleasanton.
Miley’s refusal to step down and his power of incumbency kept out good candidates with proven leadership. His only opponent is Jennifer Esteen, a nurse and union negotiator for one of the labor organizations that represents county employees. In this race between two troubling choices, we make no recommendation.
We’re hopeful that Carson’s replacement will bring a much-needed examination of county operations. Currently, rather than set the agenda, members of the Board of Supervisors repeatedly defer to their staff and then use that as political cover when controversies arise.
We’ve seen it, for example, with the supervisors’ 2019 sweetheart deal with the Oakland A’s that transfers the county’s rights to the Coliseum without assurances the team stays in the East Bay.
And, more recently, after the horrific 2022 death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason, when supervisors sat back as county attorneys tried to block media access to public documents. Two years later, supervisors have yet to provide a public accounting for how social service workers allowed the child to remain with her mother, who had a history of drug abuse and prostitution, despite repeated reports of abuse.
The good news is that the Board of Supervisors is in transition. After 24 years, Scott Haggerty opted not to seek reelection in 2020. The subsequent tragic death of Wilma Chan, who had served two stints totaling 17 years, and the passing of Richard Valle, who had served for 10 years, also led to change at the top.
But thus far, we haven’t seen the shift in mindset that we’ve been hoping for — one that critically evaluates whether the county is being fully transparent and is most efficiently and equitably delivering social services, aiding the homeless and overseeing the jail and county law enforcement.
We’re hoping that, with Carson gone, his replacement and the three other new supervisors — David Haubert, Elisa Marquez and Lena Tam — will step up and exercise the leadership that’s so desperately needed.
District 5 – Bauters
Few local officials work as hard or have as much energy as Bauters. He has a track record of influencing meaningful change while earning the respect of his colleagues.
For example, as chair of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board, he led efforts for some of the nation’s toughest particulate pollution controls for refineries. And he pressed for a management audit of the district, which led to the retirement of its two top executives and a more aggressive stance with industrial polluters, especially in communities of color.
Race and equity policies have been central to Bauters’ policymaking. On the Alameda County Transportation Commission, he has been a strong advocate for public transit and making our roads less car-centric. And on the commission and the Emeryville City Council, Bauters, an avid cyclist, has led efforts for bikeway construction, including the county plan for 400 miles of connected routes.
Meanwhile, Bauters has worked as a lobbyist for the Alliance for Safety and Justice where he has successfully pushed for California criminal justice and social service reforms, including the removal of reentry barriers for ex-prisoners, rental assistance for low-income people at risk of homelessness and screening of children to ensure that they get the mental health care they need.
While he has been an agent of change, he describes his politics as “pragmatic and reasonable.” Bauters has a reputation for showing up well-prepared and as someone who listens and builds coalitions.
His leading opponents are two other East Bay councilmembers who, unlike Bauters, have advocated for plans that would have effectively gutted their police departments.
Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas has been instrumental in her city’s dysfunctional and failed leadership that has left the Police Department understaffed despite unacceptably high crime rates. She and then-Council President Rebecca Kaplan in 2020 even advocated for cutting the police department budget by 50%, a proposal that was fortunately never carried out.
Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett infamously tried to get out of a traffic ticket by telling the officer he was “Breaking my balls (to) give you guys the biggest raise possible,” asking her, “This how you repay me?” He also texted the police chief from the scene to complain about being stopped. “We need to look after each other better than this,” he wrote to the chief in messages released to Berkeleyside.
Ironically, Bartlett has hardly looked out for the Police Department. On his campaign website, he claims to have increased funding to help hire and retain a full police force. But in 2020 he voted for a resolution calling for cutting the city’s Police Department funding by 50%.
Two other candidates are running noteworthy campaigns. Ken Berrick is a member of the Alameda County Board of Education who deeply understands social service issues but he does not have Bauters’ breadth of policy experience or energy. And Chris Moore, a business executive with no elective office experience, is not up to speed on some key county issues.
Greg Hodge, a former Oakland school board member who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2022, Gerald Pechenuk, who is a follower of the late cult political figure Lyndon LaRouche and does not believe the 2020 presidential election was legitimate, and Lorrel Pilmier, a lawyer and data scientist who has never run for office before, are the other active candidates. None of the three is mounting meaningful campaigns. The ninth candidate on the ballot, Omar Farmer, has suspended his campaign.
District 4 – no recommendation
One cannot overstate the advantage of incumbency in politics. It’s the reason that Carson has hung on for 32 years. And it’s the reason that Miley hasn’t faced well-funded opposition since he was first elected in 2000.
Public employee labor is the only interest group in local Bay Area politics with the resources and determination to challenge an entrenched incumbent. This year, they’re targeting Miley.
Their candidate, Esteen, ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 2022 for a seat won by another union activist, Liz Ortega. This time, Esteen has a lot to work with. As she points out, Miley comes replete with a history of ethical questions and poor decisions.
Miley’s daughter worked for an agency he and his fellow supervisors heavily funded with county money. Miley served on the agency’s board, and he lobbied for more money for the program as it was going under.
Then his daughter went to work for the company that had recently started providing ambulance service under a county contract Miley approved. Miley never understood the conflict, saying, “As a parent, I will do whatever I can do within the letter of the law to help my kids.”
It’s not just the letter of the law, it’s the ethics and appearance that must also be considered. Miley didn’t get it then, and he still doesn’t seem to fully grasp the problem or embrace a county ethics commission, which the civil Grand Jury called for in 2015 and again in 2023.
Then there’s the county’s 2019 deal to sell its half of the Coliseum — the city of Oakland owns the other half — to the A’s. With Carson leaving, Miley will be the only supervisor left who approved the unconscionable giveaway of public assets.
He says his only regret is that the county didn’t condition the deal on the team staying in Oakland, a decision he conveniently claims was made by his colleagues — even though he was a leading proponent of the deal.
Miley says he cannot divulge more about the board’s closed session decision. But, as he acknowledged at the time, the Coliseum was likely worth far more than the A’s agreed to pay, but supervisors never put the property out to competitive bidding.
As for Esteen, she is problematic in different ways. For starters, during our interview, she advocated for use of state bond money to help fund mental health services — a sign of her elective-office inexperience and a fundamental failure to recognize that bond borrowing should only be for capital projects, not ongoing operational costs.
More fundamentally, Esteen was vice president of organizing for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents workers throughout the Bay Area, including Alameda County and Esteen’s current employer, San Francisco Department of Public Health.
Esteen says she is currently involved with bargaining in San Francisco. There’s little question, and there’s nothing wrong with, where her allegiance lies — with public employees. But it presents a problem when she’s running for elective office: She should not be on both sides of the bargaining table. Alameda County residents and taxpayers deserve someone looking out for their interests.
Thus, between Miley’s ethically challenged past and Esteen’s labor activism and loyalties, there is no good choice in this race.