Construction companies are pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the race for the Bay Area Rapid Transit board in an effort to unseat incumbent Director Lynette Sweet.
The construction firms accuse Sweet of meddling in bids for BART construction work and are backing 25-year-old Zakhary Mallett, who until recently was a UC Berkeley graduate student. Sweet’s backers counter that she is being punished for standing up to BART contractors who shortchange and discriminate against minority subcontractors.
The heated contest underscores a fact that often goes unnoticed by the 400,000 daily BART riders: One of the transit agency’s main functions is handing out billions of dollars in contracts for construction, track repair and new BART cars. This year alone, the transit agency has awarded $2 billion in contracts. The board’s elections and policies often are shaped by contractors who have a financial interest in the outcome.
In the upcoming election, 44 percent of the money donated to the 13 candidates vying for five open seats on the BART board has come from companies or employees of companies that have done – or want to do – business with BART, according to an analysis by The Bay Citizen. Another 14 percent of all donations are coming from unions, including some that soon will be negotiating new contracts with BART management.
When companies have bids pending with BART, they are limited to $1,000 campaign donations. But the transit agency imposes no other limits on fundraising. The setup has led to accusations that BART directors favor their donors. BART Director James Fang recently was accused of a conflict of interest for advocating a development deal at the Millbrae station for a friend and campaign contributor who gave him $3,500.
In District 7, which stretches from San Francisco to Contra Costa County, Sweet is facing a challenge from Maria Alegria, a recalled Pinole City Council member; Margaret Gordon, a former Port of Oakland commissioner; and Mallett.
Even though Mallett is making his first run for office, he has raised the most money of the four, with $32,000. Most of that has come from contractors who disagree with Sweet over her support for some minority-owned businesses. Three Taber Construction employees donated a total of $9,500, and United Contractors, an association of union-affiliated contractors headquartered in San Ramon, donated $13,000.
This year, Sweet, who is African American, voted against giving contracts to Taber and other companies that she said were not complying with BART requirements that a certain percentage of some projects go to minority- and women-owned firms. Most of the $16,000 that Sweet has raised has come from BART minority contractors, including $5,000 from executives at Tom’s Metal Specialists, who said Sweet stood up for them when they were treated unfairly by Taber Construction.
“There are some contractors who appreciate it and are doing the right thing,” Sweet said. “These aren’t high goals. Then you get contractors like Taber who just flaunt the fact that they're not going to do that.”
In May, the owners of several Asian-owned companies attended a BART board meeting to complain that Taber was shortchanging them on projects and that Taber employees hurled racial epithets at them. At the time, Taber owner Bret Taber denied the allegations and said an investigation found no merit to claims of discrimination.
Emily Cohen, director of government relations for United Contractors, said many contractors would like to see Sweet off the board.
“We've had some pretty major issues with Lynette Sweet,” Cohen said. “She's just been very, very hostile to the industry. She believes in promoting certain minority businesses over others as opposed to a fair bid environment.”
Mallet said in an interview that he sympathized with his financial backers’ concerns.
“Lynette Sweet has intruded into procurement processes in order to support minority- and woman-owned businesses,” said Mallett, who also is African American. “I am not against minority-owned businesses – I am a minority myself – but not at the expense of providing local jobs to impoverished workers.”
For example, Mallett said, Sweet was wrong to vote against a $23 million contract for Lathrop Construction Associates to work on the eBART extension to Brentwood. At the June meeting, Sweet said she was upset that Lathrop had not reached the goal that BART had set of 23 percent minority-owned subcontractors. Lathrop instead had 1.9 percent.
Mallett, who earned his master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley this year, said he was surprised by how much money he had raised for his first run for public office.
“I do make clear to each of these contractors, ‘I am not going to give you any special favors,’ ” Mallett said.
Sweet accused the construction companies of going out and “buying a candidate.”
“They can’t be accused of racism if they also go and find someone who’s also African American,” Sweet said. “They own him, and if he wins, that spotlight that I put on them will go away.”
In District 5, BART board President John McPartland, who represents the southern part of Alameda County, is running against John Maher, a former BART employee and union leader. McPartland is winning the fundraising race with nearly 60 percent of his donations this year coming from BART contractors and another 25 percent coming from the unions.
Three candidates are vying for the District 3 spot left vacant by Bob Franklin that covers parts of Oakland, Berkeley and other cities in Alameda County. Rebecca Saltzman, who works as a policy manager for the California League of Conservation Voters, is facing off against BART employee Anthony Pegram and attorney Fred Wright Lopez.
Saltzman has raised the most money, though a very low percentage is coming from BART contractors.
In San Francisco’s District 9, longtime incumbent Tom Radulovich, first elected in 1996, is facing off with attorney Peter Klivans and Luke Lucas, a mobility manager. No one in the race has raised much money, and Klivans is funding his own campaign.
Radulovich, who has raised $1,500 from unions but nothing from BART contractors, said he understands why his fellow directors turn to contractors for money.
“It’s hard to raise money for a BART race,” Radulovich said. “People, broadly speaking, aren't that interested.”
View this story on Bay Citizen
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.