July 14, 2024
"It would be patently unfair, and likely a violation of their fundamental right to hold public office, to disqualify these candidates," the Oakland city clerk said Friday.

OAKLAND — Faced with another fiasco that could have sabotaged a key local election in the fall, Oakland city officials decided the race must go on.

The two candidates vying for an open Oakland school board seat will be allowed to run in November, despite a critical error by the city clerk’s office that led both candidates to fall short of gathering enough signatures in the right places to be eligible.

The decision by City Clerk Asha Reed, emailed Friday to Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis and other officials, stands to resolve the election mess, though it also relies on a legal interpretation that might be vulnerable to challenges.

“It would be patently unfair, and likely a violation of their fundamental right to hold public office, to disqualify these candidates” amid the situation, Reed said in the email. “We cannot support such an unjust result.”

Amid changing boundaries, the city wasn’t clear about where the candidates needed to collect nomination signatures for District 5, a largely Latino area south of I-580 that spans parts of East Oakland, including Fremont High School and the Fruitvale neighborhood.

The boundaries were adjusted last year, and the city’s election officials intended to use the new ones for November’s special election. But the school board director who last held the seat — before vacating it early this year — had been elected before redistricting took place, so the old boundaries are the ones that apply: the candidates and their voters must live within them.

The two candidates, Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez and Jorge Lerma, live within both the old and new sets of election boundaries.

Although existing city laws call for a strict signature requirement, city officials decided that, based on an absence of language in California Education Code, there aren’t legal grounds to disqualify the candidates from the special election.

Oakland City Councilmember, District 6, Nikki Fortunato Bas, right, is sworn in by Oakland City Clerk Asha Reed during the inauguration ceremony at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Reed, in her email to Alameda County, writes “we believe a court would hold that ambiguity must be resolved in favor of the candidates, and we must accept signatures from residents residing within the new boundary.”

In a reversal of the city’s original plans, the voters who eventually decide on a new school board member this November will need to live within District 5 as it existed before redistricting.

The old boundaries incorporate part of the Trestle Glen neighborhood north of I-580 and does not stretch far enough east to include Horace Mann Elementary.

Reed’s email states that the candidates — who were stunned to learn Thursday they may be ineligible — had not directly been “counseled” to seek signatures within any specific boundaries.

A legal opinion last year by state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office clearly stated that pre-redistricting boundaries should apply in situations like these, though Reed notes that the opinion is not legally binding.

The city clerk’s office did not appear to even be aware of the legal question surrounding the boundaries, or the candidates’ eligibility, until earlier this week when its members were questioned by an opinion columnist on the staff of this news organization.

And despite administering the election to this point, the city clerk’s office argued that the boundaries should have been set by county authorities, who said earlier this week they were following the direction of the city.

It remains unclear whether the city, by not extending the filing deadline, might be excluding candidates who otherwise might have been eligible to run for the open District 5 seat this November.

Revelation of the mix-up this week resulted in chaos among city officials, who scrambled over the past two days to resolve the dilemma.

“We are relieved the city has found a path to allow these candidates to move forward,” Alysse Castro, the county superintendent of schools, said Friday in a statement.

Lerma said he had been in touch with multiple attorneys before hearing of the resolution late Friday afternoon.

“I just hope people know this wasn’t our fault, so it doesn’t look like two dummies didn’t get enough signatures in time,” he said.