Two Environmentalists Vie For Parks District Vacancy

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 09:25:00 AM

Two candidates with strong environmental records are facing off for an open seat on the East Bay Regional Parks District. 

When incumbent Nancy Skinner won the Democratic nomination to fill the outgoing Loni Hancock’s seat in the state Assembly, the race for the park board’s Ward 1 slot opened up for the Nov. 4 election. 

While two years ago Skinner was among 14 would-be candidates who applied to the board for an appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of member Jean Siri, only two filed to run in the Nov. 4 election to replace Skinner, winner of the earlier in-house selection. 

Another unsuccessful candidate for the 2006 appointment, Shirley Dean, is otherwise occupied in a campaign to become, once again, Berkeley’s mayor. 

The two candidates for the seat, Whitney Dotson of Richmond and Norman La Force of El Cerrito, have been allies on many East Bay environmental issues, including the battle to clean up contaminated sites on the Richmond shoreline. 

Both candidates have opposed the building of casinos in the Richmond area, one on a choice site along the Point Molate Shoreline and the other in unincorporated North Richmond. 

La Force has more political experience, as well as the endorsements of Hancock, the mayors of Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Emeryville and Richmond, and the blessing of Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. 

An attorney and long-time Sierra Club activist, La Force also served on the El Cerrito City Council, including a term as mayor. 

Though the race is Dotson’s first for elected office, he’s a veteran of grassroots organizing and has served as chair of the Community Advisory Group that is watchdogging the cleanup of Campus Bay and the adjacent UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station. 

A community activist with a master’s degree in Public Health Planning, Administration, and Education from UC Berkeley, Dotson is associate director of the Neighborhood House of North Richmond, a non-profit agency that provides services to North Richmond residents. 

He also serves as president of the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council. 

La Force and Dotson were both active in the lawsuit against the Richmond City Council that resulted in a ruling that councilmembers failed to order a mandatory environmental review before agreeing to a deal that would provide police, fire and road services to the casino planned for North Richmond in exchange for $310 million in payments to the city. 

Both have also been active in Citizens for Eastshore Parks, a group that has been instrumental in saving lands for parks in the East Bay. 

The East Bay Regional Parks District includes more than 98,000 acres of public lands in 65 parks, recreation and land bank parcels. The district employs 644 full-time workers, includes members of its own police and fire departments, and operates under a budget for the current year of $147.3 million. 

Both candidates have amassed impressive backer slates, including shared endorsements from the incumbent Skinner, former Assemblymember Bob Campbell, Save the Bay founder Sylvia McLaughlin and Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt and his wife Shirley. 

La Force has more city councilmembers on his side, with backing from all current members of the Berkeley council, three Albany councilmembers, five from El Cerrito, two from Oakland, and three each from Richmond and San Pablo, along with one, Nancy Nadel, from Oakland. He also claims the backing of Assemblymember and Democratic candidate for the California State Senate, Loni Hancock. 

Three well-known names from Dotson’s list are U.S. Rep. George Miller, former Assemblymember and current Peralta Community College District Chancellor Elihu Harris, and noted Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris. 

Both candidates have been endorsed by educators and environmentalists, with La Force offering the longer list, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters of the East Bay and the Green Party. 

“Basically, I would like to increase access to our parks,” Dotson told the Planet. “Most residents of the East Bay are not aware of the resources available to them. I’m very interested in the North Richmond shoreline, and I would like to see the district expand its ownership of key properties along the shoreline. 

“I understand the necessity of having access to open space and intact natural environments for physical and psychological well-being in our society,” he said, and he supports uniting students, academic faculty and community activists to survey park users about their goals for public parkland, as well as existing obstacles and opportunities. 

La Force, who has served as a pro bono attorney for the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and other environmental groups, told the Planet, “I bring 25 years of passion, commitment and expertise to the effort to save open space and operate the premiere local park system in the country to make it better—better for people to enjoy and also better for our effort to preserve and enhance wildlife and habitat.” 

The attorney said he crafted the fire management program for the parks district and “was a key leader in getting the park district to purchase the lands that have become the Gilman ball fields” and raising money to purchase the site.