Leah Wilson, shown here in her time on the BUSD board, has joined the PAB as its newest member.

The city’s Police Accountability Board has a human resources problem.

The board, which is meant to comprise 10 people — nine regular members and an alternate — has only half that number, leading to a backlog of accumulated work, according to its chairman and the city’s police accountability director.

Several council members, who are responsible for nominating board members, said the recruitment process can be complicated. In several recent cases, candidates have backed out of consideration.

The council confirmed the two most recent appointees, Leah Wilson and Bill Williams, Tuesday night. But Williams did not attend Wednesday’s meeting of the Police Accountability Board and on Thursday the office of Councilmember Mark Humbert, who had appointed Williams, confirmed he would not be accepting the post.

That keeps the board’s membership at five. Besides Wilson, the newcomer, four of the board’s original appointees remain from when they first met in July 2021 — Chair John Moore III, Vice-Chair Regina Harris, Kitty Calavita and Julie Leftwich.

Moore said he had made several requests for new candidates to the council through the Office of the Director of Police Accountability, and also asked that likely candidates start attending board meetings even before being confirmed.

“There’s a lot of process and institutional learning that needs to happen before you can be effective in this position,” Moore said.

The board does not see new candidates’ applications in advance, Moore said.

“Exhausting” work weighing on remaining members

With half the seats empty, the work of the board — reviewing police department policies and hearing complaints against the department and its officers, among other responsibilities — has been piling up. Several of the board’s subcommittees had only one member each, Moore said.

The vacancies “are definitely having an impact. The policy review work, some of it can be very time-consuming, as evidenced in tonight’s discussion about the surveillance cameras and unmanned aerial systems,” Director of Police Accountability Hansel Aguilar said Tuesday, shortly before the City Council took up a series of proposed policies on cameras and drones. “Being short with the board members is really going to impact their work and the quality of their work.”

Having an alternate member “was a crucial tool that could’ve been helpful,” Aguilar said. Alisa Batista, the original candidate for alternate in 2021, “was no longer able to participate, so that was also a missed opportunity.”

Aguilar said there was “a natural limit with how much a person can engage.”

“I know how exhausting this work can be,” Aguilar said. “All these different factors have been impacting the work and … general well-being of board members.”

Aguilar said members of the public and the media had approached him with questions on police salaries and budget, and the city charter empowers the board to do budget reviews, but the board may not have the bandwidth for that additional work with so few members seated.

This October 2022 file photo shows the Police Accountability Board and former Interim Director of Police Accountability Katherine Lee. Of the eight PAB members shown here, only four remain. Credit: Berkeleyside/Zoom

Cheryl Owens, the board member who departed most recently, did so in protest of the city’s relationship with the board, accusing City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley of deference to police Chief Jen Louis and city staff of stymying the board’s oversight work.

With the City Attorney’s Office understaffed, several board members have asked whether the board should have its own counsel. The board has also formed a subcommittee “to explore issues and solutions regarding conflicts of interest with legal counsel,” according to its records.

“What board member Owens did was beyond courageous,” Moore said in a phone interview. “When she resigned from the board it caused the kind of attention the board needed.”

Owens “was one of the most unbiased and fervent board members that we had, and it’s truly a loss to the community,” Moore said.

Owens had chaired the subcommittee conducting a policy review on the police department’s bike team. A fired officer once on the team has alleged a supervisor ran arrest quotas and shared what appear to be text messages between members that included racist and anti-homeless content.

Moore said he sometimes felt that the council and administration may not be prioritizing transparency and accountability.

“It’s not what they say to us, it’s what they do for us,” Moore said. “What we’d like to do is grow that support and be equated as stakeholders in the conversation. My grandfather would say, ‘If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re probably on the menu.’”

Months without members

The board hasn’t had a full complement of regular members since July 2022, roughly a year after it first met.

The board was wildly popular with voters, passing a ballot measure by 85% in 2020. But its only nominated alternate never sat, according to board records, and in the last 10 months, it has been hemorrhaging its regular members.

According to the city charter, candidates must apply for membership through the city clerk’s office, and each council member and the mayor select a nominee from the pool of applicants, subject to confirmation by the whole council. If confirmed, board members’ terms last four years or until the term of their sponsor expires, whichever happens first. Members are limited to eight consecutive years but may return after two years off the board.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he “had a candidate in mind, but due to work and other commitments they were unable to serve at this time.”

“I am committed to balancing diversity on the board given the lack of Latinx representation, and I have been consulting community leaders to identify candidates to interview,” Arreguín said in a response to an email inquiry. “I do not have anyone ready to appoint yet, but I am actively searching for candidates. If anyone is interested they should contact my office at Mayor@CityofBerkeley.info.”

Arreguín’s original appointee Ismail Ramsey left the board in March, according to the board’s records. He was sworn in the same month as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.

Among other restrictions, members of the board must “not be an employee, officer or contractor with the city, a current sworn police officer from any agency, or a current employee, official, or representative of an employee association representing sworn police officers,” according to the city charter.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson said he was working on an appointment and hoped to fill that vacancy soon.

“Until recently, I had a perfect candidate going through the background check process, but changes in her employment have resulted in her no longer planning to be a Berkeley resident due to the cost of living here, so she will no longer be eligible for the role,” Robinson said in response to a text inquiry. “The background check process is important, but does mean that it takes several months to make an appointment to the board.”

Nathan Mizell, now a city rent commissioner, was Robinson’s original appointee. He stepped down from the board last year in order to serve on the elected Rent Stabilization Board.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who had appointed Owens, did not immediately respond to inquiries about possible successors.

Wilson’s predecessor Michael Chang, Councilmember Sophie Hahn’s original appointee, also stepped down last year for an elected position, in his case to join the Berkeley Unified School District’s Board of Directors. He was last on the board’s attendance list in July 2022.

Humbert had picked Williams to succeed Deborah Levine. Humbert’s own predecessor, Lori Droste, had appointed Levine in the board’s early days. Levine’s term ended with Droste’s, but board members are allowed to continue work until their successors are confirmed.

Humbert’s office did not directly answer an inquiry as to whether he may reappoint Levine. His legislative aide, Eric Panzer, forwarded Williams’s resignation letter, in which Williams extended his regrets and said that “a sudden change in my personal circumstances” meant he would not be able to sit on the board.

“No other candidates have been given deep consideration yet,” Panzer wrote. “Given the demands of the PAB and the extra layers of process for PAB appointments specifically, (Councilmember) Humbert will be engaging in a very deliberative process to try to find the right candidate.”

Wilson is the executive director of the State Bar of California and previously worked as a court executive officer for the Alameda County Superior Court. She was also the president of BUSD’s board before departing in 2013 to avoid possible conflicts with the county court job. After Aguilar swore her in Wednesday Wilson said she was excited to join and was “really hoping to bring to life the vision of this accountability board.”

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Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...