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Local Official Spotlight: Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson

Keith Carson, who has represented Berkeley on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for 27 years, shines light on his role and powers as county supervisor.

County Supervisor Keith Carson, who represents District 5 on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, is a Berkeley resident through and through. Born and raised in Berkeley, he attended Malcolm X Elementary School and Willard Middle School, eventually graduating from Berkeley High School (BHS). He has since become a major force for the improvement and growth of Alameda County.

Carson recognizes his childhood in Berkeley as one of the main causes of his passion for helping the community. He discussed his youth, saying, “I was very fortunate to have a family, as well as a community, who thought we needed to not only show up, but be active towards social change, and make sure everybody was treated with the same amount of respect and afforded the same opportunities.”

Immediately after his graduation from BHS, Carson began interning for Warren Widener, the Berkeley mayor from 1971 to 1979. Meanwhile, he attended Merritt College in Oakland, and eventually transferred to UC Berkeley. He continued on to work for Congressman Ron Dellums for over 15 years, never expecting to become an elected official himself.

Carson’s initial stint as supervisor came as a surprise after the unexpected death of John George, the previous supervisor for District 5. Carson had worked closely with George, along with many other political leaders in the area. When candidates were suggested for appointment to fill out the rest of the term, Carson was proposed.

As of now, Carson has been serving for over 27 years on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. As the District 5 representative, he is responsible for Berkeley, Albany, Piedmont, Emeryville, and over a third of Oakland. On his experience with his unusual appointment, Carson reflected, “Although I wanted to be a public servant by volunteering, instead of becoming an elected official, I think I’ve grown into my position as Supervisor.”

The nuances of which responsibilities fall to state government or regional government can appear complex, but Carson summarized, “Our responsibility statutorily is to oversee the health, safety, and welfare of the people that live in our area.”

The county has direct responsibility for public health, which means it must work to support the community in many ways. This includes mental health centers, hospitals, and community clinics. Because the public health officer is a county employee, dealing with COVID-19 and its effects on Alameda County citizens falls to the regional government as well.

The Board of Representatives on which Carson sits is also responsible for public safety, which involves many different focuses. Although local police are responsible for overseeing police activity, the sheriff’s office is regional, and steps in if something occurs that local police are unable to handle. The Board oversees the public defender’s office, which supports defendants who can’t afford legal counsel, as well as the district attorney’s office and prosecutors. The Board also supervises the probation department for released prisoners and juvenile hall for incarcerated youth.

In terms of public welfare, the Board is responsible for social services, including food stamps and food distribution, senior care, and the foster care system. They have a public works department in charge of unincorporated areas like Castro Valley and Cherryland that have no official government and work to distribute a three billion dollar budget throughout the entire region. 

A major priority for the Board is meeting on a regular basis with councilmembers and the mayors of cities they represent. Carson stated, “We are the safety net for this region, and we try to make sure that we keep in touch with every fabric of our community, to hear from them and inform them.”

Carson has been the chair of the Alameda County East Bay Economic Development Alliance (East Bay EDA) for many years and considers working closely with businesses a necessity. He explained, “The East Bay EDA brings all of the decision-makers and leaders to the same table to make sure we maintain the diversity of businesses we have here and that we prepare a diverse workforce.”

Carson’s main goals include working with the community and hearing from a diverse group of citizens so that everyone impacted by decisions can be at the table discussing them. Currently, he is working with the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce in Oakland and the African American Chamber of Commerce in the East Bay on a grant program for small businesses throughout Alameda County. Carson said, “I’m specifically focused on working with community-based groups because I believe the government’s ability to do its job is reliant on communication with the community.”

Within the community, Carson is focused on providing opportunities for students to learn about the government and be active in decision making. He first got involved with politics by becoming a member of Youth and Government, a program designed to educate middle and high school students about politics and civic engagement. Because of his own experience, he sees involving students as a priority.

Carson reflected, “Whenever I visit schools and speak to students, I always tell them that there is nothing in life that isn’t political. What I say to young people is that you have to have your voice at that table because nobody can speak for you, but you. Your voice should always be heard.”

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