AC Transit Director Faces Tough Fight

Berkeley attorney Yelda Bartlett has received numerous endorsements in her campaign against incumbent Joe Wallace.

Of the two AC Transit board races this November, the one incumbent who looks vulnerable is Joe Wallace. The Richmond employment specialist has represented Ward 1 (Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, San Pablo, El Sobrante, Kensington, North Richmond, and a portion of Berkeley) on the AC Transit Board of Directors since 2000. Although he ran unopposed for the seat in 2008, Wallace faces a significant challenge this year from Berkeley attorney Yelda Bartlett, who operates her own family and business law firm in Oakland.

Saying that the AC Transit board needs “progressive leadership,” Bartlett lists her three top issues as reducing emissions, improving labor protections, and increasing ridership. In her official ballot statement, she stated that “AC Transit is in crisis. Fares are up while service has declined. Aging buses contribute to poor air quality and some of the highest child asthma rates in the state.” She promises to “champion clean, renewable energy facilities and equipment that reduce pollution and global warming” and to “focus on data-driven budget solutions and improve effectiveness of transit service while respecting the rights of AC Transit workers.”

When asked in a phone interview how she could accomplish those goals in an era of budget problems for the transit district, Bartlett said she would focus on removing inefficiencies and soliciting additional funds from the Bay Area’s regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the federal Department of Transportation, and by “renegotiating the district’s debt terms with banks so that we can decrease the yearly debt-service payment.” Bartlett said that she was “not in favor of cutting bus service” as AC Transit has been doing for the past several years as a cost-savings measure, and only saw such actions as a “last resort.”

As for Wallace, Bartlett was guarded in her criticism. “When he was appointed to office twelve years ago, it was because of the important advocacy work he had done in the Richmond area,” she said. “But since then, he hasn’t had a lot of initiatives in proposing new solutions or in advocating for people in his ward.”

Bartlett’s major organizational endorsements include the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club, AFSCME Council 57 and AFSCME Local 3916, Berkeley Citizens Action, the Berkeley Democratic Club, Black Elected Officials & Faith Based Leaders of the East Bay (BEO & FBL), the East Bay Stonewall Democrats, the El Cerrito Democratic Club, the Green Party of Alameda County, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. She has also been endorsed by AC Transit board member Greg Harper and West Contra Costa County school district President Charles Ramsey, as well as by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and the entire eight-member Berkeley City Council.

While Wallace’s official district biography lists him as being “instrumental in the creation of AC Transit’s Line 376 service—California’s first specifically-designed ‘welfare-to-work’ bus route,” Wallace routinely appears to be the least-informed member of the board, often speaking out to demand better services for his constituents, but then growing silent during budget or technical debates. He is similarly vague in his official ballot statement, stating, for example, that “my calling as a board member is simply to provide affordable, reliable, and efficient bus service” without indicating how that might be brought about. And when asked by the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club what taxes he would support raising or lowering, he said, “we need more tax dollars for the local community services, local streets and road repair and that [sic] what I will be in favor of,” but did not specify which taxes he favored.

Wallace has been endorsed by Teamsters Joint Council 7, the Alameda Labor Council AFL-CIO, and the Sierra Club of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. He failed to attend the El Cerrito Democratic Club endorsement meeting, missing out on their endorsement. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

In the other AC Transit race, incumbent H.E. Christian “Chris” Peeples is facing retired AC Transit bus driver Dollene Jones. When Jones first ran for the AC Transit Ward 3 board seat two years ago, her path to victory seemed somewhat easier. The district’s signature Bus Rapid Transit proposal was under attack in both the City of Berkeley and in North Oakland, its system-wide Van Hool buses were under severe criticism; it had an unpopular general manager, Rick Fernandez; and Jones was running against first-term incumbent Elsa Ortiz. Jones ran a credible campaign, coming in second to Ortiz, 31 to 47 percent, in a three-way race.

This time around, Jones’ task is more formidable. BRT has been approved for operation between downtown Oakland and downtown San Leandro; Fernandez is gone, along with his controversial “partnership” with Van Hool; and Jones is now running against a fifteen-year incumbent and longtime dedicated transit advocate — Peeples — for one of the two At-Large seats on the AC Transit board.

On the campaign trail, Jones has criticized the district for imposing a contract on bus drivers two years ago (“I’d never do that,” she said) and for service cuts (“the public wants their service back”). She also has taken shots at Peeples directly (“after he’s been serving fifteen years on the board, people are asking ‘how come we’re not in better shape?'”). But Jones is thin on solutions to the district’s financial problems, saying that “we have to take a close look at the budget” and “I won’t know [what needs to be fixed] until I get elected and get my hands on the documents.”

Peeples, meanwhile, does not appear to be doing anything different this election season, as he always seems to be in campaign mode. One of the more knowledgeable board members when it comes to transit issues, Peeples is a regular attendee of Bay Area regional and statewide transit meetings, and is a familiar face year-round at Alameda and Contra Costa county political club meetings. That extended activity has resulted in a virtual sweep of endorsements by the major political clubs in the area, including the Metropolitan Greater Oakland Democratic Club, the Berkeley Democratic Club, the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, the El Cerrito Democratic Club, and the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Jones lists only the support of the powerful Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) as an organizational endorsement.

Peeples is comfortable running on most of his record as an AC Transit board member, citing his “support for better access for disabled persons and low fares for children” and AC Transit’s hydrogen fuel cell bus program, as well as his years of lobbying for state and federal funds for the district. But in one distinct area, Peeples seeks to turn the page on his record. The chief board supporter of the AC Transit-Van Hool exclusive partnership under Fernandez, Peeples now lists the fact that the district “now buy[s] buses in Hayward, engines in San Leandro and NextBus from Alameda” in his ballot statement.


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