BERKELEY -- There could be a new sheriff in town — and a new district attorney too, say organizers of a forum called Nov. 5 to "re-imagine our sheriff and district attorney" at the South Berkeley Senior Center. Both Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley are up for re-election June 3.
"We've had a long string of individuals who are placed into their positions and have never had to run a contested election," Berkeley attorney Yolanda Huang, who moderated the event, told an audience of around 40 people.
With the support of his predecessor Charles Plummer, Ahern won his office in uncontested races in 2006 and 2010. District Attorney Nancy O'Malley was appointed in 2009 by the county Board of Supervisors to replace District Attorney Tom Orloff, who supported her. She then won an uncontested race in 2010.
Uncontested succession to these offices means that the person coming in "carries some of the same interests and forces as the person before them," said former Oakland City Councilman Wilson Riles, one of several speakers.
The Rev. Daniel Buford also addressed the meeting and condemned what he called "militarization" of the Sheriff's Department. He criticized Ahern's unsuccessful plans to buy drones and his willingness to turn undocumented immigrants who have been arrested over to federal immigration officials.
Buford said a different sort of sheriff could transform jails into places "where people resurrect and change their lives."
Ahern did not return requests for comment before deadline.
On the question of a new district attorney, one audience member spoke favorably of O'Malley's "significant effort around child trafficking." Speaking from the stage, however, Oakland attorney Dan Siegel criticized what he said was O'Malley's practice of setting high bails, calling for a "more reasonable bail policy," so that pretrial prisoners with low-level felonies could get out of jail on their own recognizance.
He also said a DA should focus more on environmental and consumer crimes and speak out against the death penalty.
In a phone interview, Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for O'Malley, pointed to a host of initiatives coming from the DA's office, including the "at school" program focusing on keeping children in school and out of the criminal justice system, getting unprocessed rape kits tested, and fighting against real estate and mortgage fraud.
"She's built new spirit and new ideas through her initiatives," Drenick said.
Responding to the question of bail policy, Drenick said bail is up to the judge, though she said the district attorney can and does intervene on a case-by-case basis. "It's about doing justice," she said.
Drenick further said O'Malley's appointment followed the democratic process, with a public hearing followed by a vote of the county Board of Supervisors. As for the 2010 election, "She filed papers, but nobody filed to run against her," Drenick said.
Imagining a different sort of sheriff and DA was just part of the discussion. Finding qualified and willing candidates might be a challenge.
Speaking from the audience, one person suggested that qualified individuals in the sheriff's and DA's offices might hesitate to run against their bosses, but that retired law enforcement personnel and retired assistant district attorneys might seek the posts.
Candidates have until March 7 to file papers for the offices.