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Borenstein: Oakland election fiasco leaves uncertainty of who is in charge

Borenstein: Oakland election fiasco leaves uncertainty of who is in charge

It seemed at the end of last week that Oakland’s latest election debacle, this one about the boundaries for an upcoming special school board election, had been resolved. It turns out that it hadn’t.

The dispute finally reached a tenuous resolution Tuesday. The election to fill a key vacant seat representing District 5 on the evenly divided seven-member school board will go forward, as it should, using the correct pre-redistricting boundaries.

But what has transpired since Friday raises troubling questions about why Oakland is refusing to oversee its municipal election. And it indicates that rather than own and correct her mistakes, Oakland City Clerk Asha Reed is trying to push responsibility onto others.

This debacle came to light last week, after the candidate filing period ended for the Nov. 7 election, when I pointed out that Reed was using the wrong district boundaries.

Reed was planning to use “new” boundaries that were created during the city’s 2021 redistricting. But, as a state attorney general’s opinion made clear, the “old” pre-redistricting boundaries in effect three years ago were the ones that should be used.

That’s because the special election for the school board’s District 5 seat will select someone to fill out the remaining year of a term that was first decided by voters in 2020.

Everyone involved in the dispute now agrees on using the old boundaries. And, fortunately, both candidates — Jorge Lerma, a former principal and longtime education advocate, and Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, a parent education organizer — also live inside the old boundaries so they are still eligible to be on the ballot.

But Reed, who has charge of municipal elections, including school board races, refused to give the Alameda County elections office the direction it needed to make the boundary change for the upcoming balloting.

Instead, in an email to the elections office on Friday, Reed suddenly claimed the boundary issue wasn’t her responsibility. “(W)e do not concede that the Office of the City Clerk is solely or even primarily responsible for setting the boundaries,” she wrote.

It was a stunning assertion. After months taking the lead in the planning for the Nov. 7 election, as she should, Reed and her attorneys were claiming that she could no longer make a key decision about which neighborhoods would be included.

This after she had collected candidate filing fees and directed candidates and county election officials as to which district boundaries would be used. And, lest there be any confusion as to who was in charge, Oakland’s website makes clear that this is a city election.

Rather than own up to her error and correct it, Reed was making a legally dubious claim that the boundary decision wasn’t part of her job. That created uncertainty about who was the election official in charge with the authority to set the district boundaries for a special election.

That became clear when Tim Dupuis, the county elections chief, wrote back on Friday that his office, which mails out and counts ballots, provides a ministerial service and takes its direction from the city. On the issue of which boundaries to use for the election, he wrote, “We will need a clearer acknowledgement that this is the direction you are giving us.”

He was right. His position was understandable. Dupuis hadn’t created this mess, and he and the county apparently didn’t want to be thrown under the bus for the city’s error or placed on the legal hook for a boundary decision that wasn’t his to make.

It’s mind-boggling why the city clerk and her attorneys are trying to unload responsibility for the election. If this were a regular election, Reed would clearly be the person in charge. But, Reed is trying to claim this midterm election to fill a vacancy is somehow different.

Under state law, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Alysse Castro had a duty to call the special election after the evenly divided school board could not pick a replacement to fill the vacancy. Reed cites a provision in Castro’s order to suggest that the county is in charge.

It’s a silly claim. Castro, in her order, requested that the county “render specified services to the district relating to the conduct of an election.” For starters, it’s not clear that Castro had the legal authority to make that request because the state code section she cited only applies to “a governing body of any city of district,” something Castro is not.

But more important, as Dupuis’ attorney, Senior Deputy County Counsel Raymond Lara, pointed out in an email to the city on Tuesday, “My client receives scores of similar resolutions from cities requesting the (registrar of voters) to ‘render specified services’ to conduct the election, but they do not transform my client into the elections official of these cities.”

Dupuis’ Friday email seeking clear direction went unanswered until I started questioning city officials about it on Monday. That prompted an over-the-top email by Oakland Deputy City Attorney Selia Warren making false accusations that the county was refusing to conduct the election.

But in her embarrassingly overheated argument, while continuing to claim that the city is not responsible for making the decision, Warren finally stated clearly for the first time to the county elections office the city’s position that the “old” boundaries should be used.

Since the county believes, correctly it seems, that the city is in charge, Lara took that position stated by Warren as the direction the elections office needed to adjust the boundaries used for mailing out ballots.

The immediate issue was finally resolved. But the city’s troubling legal posture continues to cast doubt on whether Oakland officials are taking responsibility for their own election.

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