A Conversation with Contra Costa County Board of Supervisor Karen MitchoffAug 17, 2022 09:19AM ● By Pam Kessler
When Karen Mitchoff retires from the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on January 2, 2023, life for the Pleasant Hill resident will change dramatically. First elected to her District 4 seat in 2010, Mitchoff represents Clayton, Concord, Pleasant Hill, most of Walnut Creek, and the unincorporated Contra Costa Centre—on the five-member board. Here she reflects on decades of public service, her achievements, efforts to protect the Delta, challenges facing the Diablo region, and her future plans.
How did you get into public service? What did you do before?
I grew up between Donna Reed and Gloria Steinem. My father was frequently unemployed during my teenage years and I wanted financial stability. My mother made sure I had typing and stenography skills, so while going to DVC for an AA in Business, I became a legal secretary. Through my affiliations, I met Sheriff Dick Rainey and worked as his executive secretary for 4.5 years. From there, I worked as chief of staff for former supervisors Sunny Wright McPeak and Mark Desaulnier.
After completing my Human Development degree in 2002, I joined the Contra Costa County Human Services Department as an administrative analyst and was later appointed to the Pleasant Hill Recreation & Park District, where I served for 5 years before my run and election to the Pleasant Hill City Council in 2008. When County Supervisor Susan Bonilla decided to launch a campaign for an assembly seat, I decided to run for her spot and took office in 2011. As they say, the rest is history. I have worked for 50 years, and 40 of them have been in public service.
Why did you decide to retire?
When I ran for reelection in 2018, I said it would be my last term. After 12 years on the board, I’m tired. While one of the ‘silver linings’ from Covid has been the ability for more people to participate in County Board meetings. We also have what I refer to as “frequent flyers” who comment at every meeting, on every item, and not all of the comments are germane or on point. People are extremely interested in our budget process, as well as issues related to mental illness, homelessness, income disparity, and social justice. We welcome the comments and work hard at transparency.
Were you surprised that five candidates entered the race for your seat? How much do County Supervisors get paid?
No, I was not surprised, this is the first time a seat has been open since 2010 and there are a lot of people who want to be supervisor. Now it’s down to Ken Carlson and Deborah Allen. I remained neutral during the primary, but I am supporting Ken Carlson, he has my endorsement. I believe he is the better candidate to fill the seat.
As of January 1, 2022, a full-time Contra Costa County Supervisor is paid $146,300 per year, which is 65% of a county superior court judges’ salary. Our colleagues in neighboring Bay Area counties are paid 75-80% of a judge's salary, and while we get paid less for the same work, you don't go into public service for the money. We also get stipends for work on other regional bodies which adds another $10K per year. You cannot expect good people to run, if you don’t pay them well.
Do you believe in term limits?
I do not believe in term limits. We have the power of the vote. When people get termed-out of public office, we lose historical and institutional memory. If you want someone else to serve, go out and vote for them or run for office yourself.
What are big milestones in your political career?
The new Pleasant Hill Library on former county land is a big deal. I’ve represented District 4 on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy Board for many years. The waterway is threatened on multiple fronts from climate change and reduced fresh water to sea level rise and historic farming practices.
Now our state government wants to build an underground tunnel bypassing fresh water to the Delta communities and routing it south. We want to protect the environment of the Delta. We want to recharge the aquifer (underground water supply) in the Central Valley, but it comes into conflict with corporate interests and farmers growing lucrative crops, like avocados and pistachios. I have spent my career opposing a single conveyance water canal.
What are the biggest challenges facing our region over the next decade?
Water, housing, and transportation. Since Covid, people have stopped using BART, which is a big concern. I look forward to more e-cars and less fossil fuels. Housing is not something government provides, but we need developers who want to build affordable housing. We do not need all the parking that we once needed. We can develop parking lots into housing, like at the Ross on Contra Costa Blvd. and the JC Penny near Nordstrom Rack. The state is putting pressure on counties and cities to build housing and taking away local control over the size and scope of housing projects.
Do you support the proposed 450+-unit Spieker Development senior housing project at Seven Hills Ranch in Walnut Creek?
The property is zoned for single-family housing, much less than is being proposed, (roughly 150 units), but seniors generate less traffic than families who are in and out by car all day. We’re hearing from people who want their parents to live there. There is a need for this kind of housing. I live in Pleasant Hill where homes in Gregory Gardens are selling for over a $1 million dollars. We need to build housing for future generations. Where you live is important. It’s very challenging to move as a senior once you become sick. It’s a good project that allows seniors to age in place. The family wanted to sell the land. My question to opponents is: if you owned that property what would you have done? Should the property owners have donated the land to the county to preserve as open space? That costs money we don't have.
Let’s talk about crime. What can be done to reduce retail and residential robberies?
When the whole ‘defund the police’ thing came in after George Floyd’s murder, it was about putting money into other resources, like the 988 the mental health crisis line. I don’t believe it is a reflection of our DA and local PDs, but rather that some people believe they can take what does not belong to them. I also attribute this to the proliferation of guns and the ongoing drug crisis, but also understand that people do not feel safe, and they used to feel safe. Law and order is a big issue in this district. When you have more officers, you have more visibility.
What comes next for you?
It’s been an honor and privilege to serve. I have listened to all sides when making my decisions. I am getting ready to retire as a single woman, it will be a change, I’ve worked my entire life. For the first three months I am going to sleep (laughter), then get a dog, visit our national parks, and work on gun reform. I lost my brother to gun violence. I ordered a book on the history of the 2nd Amendment. It was first established because of slavery and the fear of black people uprising against slave owners. We need to get away from the mentality that guns are going to make us safer. I support the 2nd Amendment, but who needs an AK-47? Nobody! Fighting for women’s reproductive rights will also be a big focus for me.