In the East Bay, a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is the closest thing to a lifetime appointment on the US Supreme Court. An incumbent county supervisor has not lost a seat in 23 years, and a local group is seeking to end that trend with a countywide ballot initiative to limit supervisors to three, four-year terms.
A notice of intention for the potential referendum was accepted by the Alameda County Registrar’s Office on Thursday. The county counsel must evaluate the proposed initiative and produce a title and ballot summary within the next fifteen days, according to the registrar’s office.
The initiative’s supporters hope it receives approval for voter’s consideration in time for the June 2016 primary election. But, before then, the county registrar’s office says supporters will need to gather more than 30,000 valid signatures for inclusion on the ballot. The number is based on 20 percent of the votes cast in Alameda County during the most recent gubernatorial contest.
Longtime Castro Valley resident Frank Mellon said the impetus for the countywide ballot initiative is clear: County residents are dissatisfied with the board on a number of issues, including the amount of taxpayers’ money it spends on sports instead of funding safety net services, along with the failing state of the county’s healthcare delivery services.
“The common denominator is you have supervisors that are there forever,” said Mellon, who is an elected member of the East Bay Municipal Utilities District. Mellon said his role in the county term limits initiative is independent of his duties at East Bay MUD where he has served as a director since 1995.
The county applies term limits on its own appointed board and commissions, said Mellon. “If it’s good enough for boards and commissions, why isn’t it good enough for the board of supervisors?”
The proposed referendum would amend the county charter to limit service for members of the board of supervisors to twelve years. Under the proposed charter amendment, three of the five county supervisors would be termed out of office.
Supervisor Keith Carson, with 22 years of service, is the longest-serving member of the board. He was elected in 1992. Supervisor Scott Haggerty was appointed to replace long-time Tri Valley Supervisor Ed Campbell in 1997. Subsequently, during Haggerty’s eighteen years on the board, he has run unopposed in every election, a fact often cited by proponents of term limits.
Supervisor Nate Miley has been on the board since he was elected in 2000 following at stint on the Oakland City Council. Carson, Haggerty, and Miley face re-election next year. While no credible challenger is likely to oppose Carson or Haggerty next June, the same may not be said for Miley. A potential challenger for Miley’s District Four seat representing a diverse area from East Oakland and unincorporated Castro Valley to Pleasanton is expected to emerge.
The rest of the board is far less entrenched. Supervisor Wilma Chan has spent a total of eight years on the board. She was first elected in 1994 and served until 1999, when she was elected to the State Assembly. Chan returned to the seat in 2010, but plans to run for state Senate next year. Meanwhile, Supervisor Richard Valle is, by far, the board member with the least tenure. He was appointed in 2012 to replace Nadia Lockyer, who resigned because of drug and alcohol addiction.
Because of the sheer power of the incumbency over the past three decades, resigning from the board of supervisors because of an addiction to methamphetamines is oddly more likely than actually losing an election. To find the last time a county supervisor lost an election, you would have to go back to 1992 when Hayward’s Gail Steele topped Bill Aragon. But even in that race, Aragon was hardly entrenched. He was appointed the year before after long-time Supervisor Charlie Santana died suddenly while delivering a eulogy for a friend.
Moreover, the power of incumbency county supervisor’s enjoy was actually strengthened in 2010 by a campaign finance ordinance approved by the board limiting political contributions to $20,000 per election. It’s passage occurred on Election Day, the day Nadia Lockyer was elected to the board on the strength of nearly $2 million in campaign donations from her husband, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer. The amount of spending by Lockyer had never before been seen in a county supervisorial race. Prior to its approval, Haggerty, the supervisor who sponsored the ordinance, lauded it as a means to even the campaign playing field, but in reality, it also pre-empts another well-financed challenger in the future, like Lockyer, from greatly outspending and potentially defeating an incumbent supervisor.
"It is important to allow everyone the right to participate and support the candidate of their choice which I believe this ordinance does," Haggerty wrote in a memo, at the time, to his board colleagues. "It also attempts to prevent a person or committee from having undue influence in a county election."