Exedra Interview | Keith Carson, District 5 Alameda County Supervisor

"It's been an incredible 30+ years serving you," wrote Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson in a social media post to his 5th District constituents this week, announcing his decision not to run for another term on the board. (Alameda County Board of Supervisors via Bay City News)

“Who do you supervise?”

That’s a question Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson gets a lot. What is the job of a county supervisor anyway?

Carson, 74, is retiring after 32 years on the job. He represents District 5, which includes Piedmont. Eight candidates are on the March 5 ballot to replace Carson. District 5 represents Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, and parts of Oakland as well as Piedmont. Two candidates, Chris Moore and Lorrel Plimier, are Piedmont residents.

It’s not an unusual question, he said. “People don’t really understand even though there are over 3,200 counties in this country,” Carson said. “What’s the real objective of this elective body that oversees it?”

Carson said you first have to understand what counties actually do and how they fit in as a tier of government. Federal and state governments get more media coverage than counties, but “we are regional government,” he said. “We do have statutory oversight and responsibility as a regional elected body, overseeing the health, safety, and welfare of our residents.”

Carson cited the sheriff’s office, public health offices, social service agencies, elections, the collecting of property taxes among the things that county supervisors oversee. “We provide basic essential services… the safety net,” he said.

As a result, being a supervisor isn’t a typical 40-hour per week job. “Because we are the safety net, it’s not unusual that there are activities that go on far beyond the 8 – 5 [work day],” Carson said. “When people have mental challenges, it’s not within the confines of 8 – 5. If somebody is homeless, it’s not within the confines of 8 – 5. If someone is arrested and taken to a county jail, it’s not always during the daytime, it might be at nighttime.”

He added that he’ll be approached by constituents in the grocery store, at a stoplight, or when he’s at the barber shop. “People are asking all the time, ‘I need help, I know somebody who needs help, there’s an emergency, could you assist them,’” Carson said. “And it’s not just me as an elected official — county staff in general provide those direct services.”

History of service

Carson was born in Berkeley and served in Ron Dellums’s congressional office for 16 years before running for the Board of Supervisors. That’s 48 years of government service. He said it was time to move on.

“I think the entire ecosystem that I operate in has changed,” he said. “And as a result of that change I came to the conclusion that it would be good to have some fresh energy in this spot addressing all of the challenges that we have before us.”

What’s next? He doesn’t know.

“I haven’t given it a thought in terms of what’s next,” he said. “I’m not expecting to do anything else politically and I’m not expecting to morph into some kind of political consultant either. But I have no idea what I’m planning on doing next other than resting.”

Navigating state and federal government is key part of job

Even when resources are scarce, counties must provide essential services. Carson’s replacement will have to get up to speed quickly. “I think what’s difficult is there is massive change taking place on the federal level, there is constant change taking place on the state level … and with that massive change and disruption, it takes a little while for individuals to get a basic understanding of their job and how to carry out that job,” Carson said. “Since we are an adjunct of the state and federal government, a person being able to navigate that terrain is always challenging, but I think it has been increasingly more challenging because the body politic nationally and statewide has changed.”

He added, “I think that in the past, individuals could be of a different party and still try to work towards at least a median or a path forward to keep things functioning and working. I see that diminishing today.”

Carson is acutely aware of who suffers when politicians draw lines in the sand. “The impact is directly to those individuals who go to the emergency ward at one of our public hospitals like the Wilma Chan Hospital or Highland Hospital or any of our community clinics,” he said. “The people who are impacted are the people who have mental breakdowns or are teetering on the verge of being able to pay their rent, or people not being able to keep up with changes in the workplace. Not because they’re not capable, but because our education system is challenged with an inadequate amount of teachers and instructors or the tools to help people be prepared for the workplace,” he said.

Carson chaired several committees in his time on the board, including the budget committee. He also chaired a business group with representatives from companies and unions in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Carson said he believes he was able to represent so many different constituencies in large part because he would go and find them wherever they were. “I grew up having had the experiences of most of the people who come to the county for assistance,” he said. “On some level, I personally experienced it. I have never gotten away from that. I stay in close contact with individuals who find themselves coming through the county for assistance. I am personally constantly in touch with people inside San Quentin, going there on a regular basis,” he said, trying to figure out how to help them stay out of trouble when they’re released.

“We’re constantly engaging with people who are emotionally challenged. Not just mentally challenged, but emotionally challenged. Those are experiences that more and more people are acknowledging that they’re having,” he said, and when emotional problems aren’t acknowledged, we see the consequences of behavioral problems on the streets, the freeways, even when going about daily shopping, he said.

Carson believes that human connection is essential for doing the supervisor job. “It’s good to have an academic analysis of [a problem] and it’s good to come up with an algorithm to point narrowly to where you are, but it’s better to hear directly from the people themselves,” he said. “I’m hoping whoever is in this seat will actually have direct contact with the people we serve.”

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