Imagine you are applying for a job (agreed, it’s a frightening thought). In the section marked “Education” you write: “B.A., Carleton College; masters degree, University of Washington; Ph.D., University of Michigan; law degree, Harvard University.” Under “Work Experience,” among other career highlights, you list: “Lead attorney for The People of the State of California v. Countrywide Financial Corporation” — a lawsuit that accused the bank of predatory lending practices and resulted in an $8.6 billion settlement, one of the largest to come out of the 2008 financial meltdown.
Next, you file your application with Gov. Jerry Brown. A month and a half later, you have the job. Your name is Kathrin “Kate” Sears, and you’re now a Marin County supervisor representing Belvedere, Marin City, Mill Valley, Strawberry, Sausalito, Tamalpais Valley and Tiburon, replacing Charles McGlashan, who died suddenly of a heart attack at 49.
Spend a few minutes with Sears, and you’ll know she has the energy to handle the demanding sunup to past-sundown job. She appears fit and energetic and is almost always smiling — if not laughing. Sears is both self-deprecating and articulate. However, does she have the smarts? Recall that job application: In addition to a Harvard law degree she has a B.A. in Asian studies, an M.A. in China studies and a Ph.D. in political science. Rather impressive. A close look at Sears’ job experience reveals the 59-year-old worked at two prestigious Bay Area law firms before joining the state attorney general’s office in San Francisco, where she worked until being named a county supervisor in May.
“I was born in San Francisco, and we moved to Mill Valley when I was 5,” Sears says. “Ten years later, we relocated to Sausalito, where I’ve lived ever since — that’s almost 45 years.” Sears is divorced and has no children. “But don’t forget Josie, my dog,” she says, laughing, “and Roxie and Pootie, my two cats — all of them from the pound.”
Sears served on several Sausalito civic committees, including the planning commission from 1999 to 2004. “What I’m most proud of,” she says, “is probably the year it took to work out the battles over the city’s Public Safety Building. There was a lawsuit and countless hearings, and I chaired a committee of more than 20 community-minded residents, each with definite ideas regarding what should, and shouldn’t, be built.”
As county supervisor, Sears will also sit on the boards of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission; Marin Telecommunications Agency; Transportation Agency of Marin; Richardson Bay Regional Agency; Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO); and the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) and Marin Energy Authority.
You had never run for elective office and, outside of Sausalito, few had ever heard your name — what inspired you to apply to be a supervisor? Last April, a group of us were talking about whom we’d support to replace Charles McGlashan after his unfortunate passing. Someone suddenly asked, “What about you?” At the time, fortunately, I was flying back and forth to Washington, D.C., as part of my work with the attorney general’s office. So I had plenty of time to think. And I decided I wanted to do it. My decision was helped in that my parents, who had only recently died, were both strong environmentalists and were active in the community. This seemed a great way to carry on their legacy; they’d raised me with an ethic of public service. As for why the county level? Being involved in Sausalito was fabulous, but communities can become insular — focused on their own projects. At the same time, the state has so many challenges. I felt the county was where I could really make an impact. Therefore, I applied. Somehow I got the job.
Why — out of a field of seven, many of them experienced politicians — do you think you were chosen? I got to know Governor Brown, his wife Anne Gust, and their staff when he became California’s attorney general in 2007. Almost immediately he got involved with the consumer affairs section, where I was working at the time. And because the Bank of America/Countrywide case was such a big lawsuit, it got his attention right away. I’m not sure what role that played in my appointment, but if you know Jerry you know he is very independent-minded; he does what he wants to do. So yes, I thought the case might help with my selection. In addition, part of my thinking was that I respect the governor so much and was excited about what he was going to accomplish. His ideas about realigning state and county responsibilities are exciting. An example is the A.B. 109 bill, which ascertains who will be in prison where; it will return prisoners and the resources for housing them to the county level. Having Jerry Brown as governor made my decision so much more interesting and exciting.
You are now on the boards of SMART and Marin Energy Authority — both are hot topics in southern Marin. How are they doing? And what about the high salaries being paid to their CEOs? Let’s take SMART first. My goal is to see the full train built, from Larkspur to Cloverdale. One of my first votes on the Transportation Authority of Marin board was to commit $8 million to SMART. My goal is to see that what the voters of Marin and Sonoma approved — namely a 70-mile commuter rail line — comes to fruition. And if anyone can make it happen it’s Farhad Mansourian, Marin’s former head of public works, who is now SMART’s general manager. He’s very capable of delivering a finished product. I am very hopeful, and, thinking long range, I can see SMART enhancing feeder bus service in areas of the county that SMART doesn’t go through.
Yes, at first I was a doubter. But once I got on the Board of Supervisors and witnessed firsthand the will and commitment of the people involved to make SMART happen, I was very encouraged. At the same time, I am concerned about the financial challenges lying ahead — especially federal cutbacks in transportation funding. However, we have to take a long-term view. Yes it involves subsidies, but it’s a transportation project and they all involve subsidies — a road, buses, ferries, they all do. In a way, I feel like I’m back in the ’60s and ’70s when Marin’s environmentalists were battling against the widening of the 101 freeway. And I’m no more in favor of that now than I was then. And yes, many of my longtime friends are mad at me for taking this stand, but we have to get people out of their cars.
Now your thoughts regarding Marin Energy Authority, or MEA. I’m excited about MEA. Boy, my timing here was lucky: All the heavy lifting had been done when I came on board. Charles McGlashan and his aide, Leslie Alden, who is now my aide, along with everyone involved, deserve a lot of credit for getting MEA off the ground. Its success in getting subscribers to receive energy from renewable sources is exciting. Actually, MEA is also of interest to Governor Brown, who has several good environmentalists working with him. They’re all excited about MEA’s potential.
And what about the hefty compensation packages recently awarded to the CEOs of SMART? When I was in the attorney general’s office, we were the worst-paid public lawyers in the state. So I look at those salaries, and I think, wow. [SMART’s Mansourian receives $246,000 annually plus benefits and $37,000 in deferred compensation; MEA’s Dawn Weisz receives $198,000 annually plus benefits and a $50,000 performance bonus.] I also understand the perspective of the individuals involved and the respective boards. They want to get the best people they can find to run these agencies properly — and you always get what you pay for. Meanwhile, you are competing with private-sector salaries for the good people. Dawn Weisz worked for seven years on the development of MEA; no one knows it like she does. As for SMART and Farhad Mansourian, the fact that a recall of the entire project is being threatened upped the salary range of a director because of the position’s uncertain future.
If the 50,000 people you represent as a supervisor were in front of you, what would you ask of them? Work with me; help me. Help me bring all of us together. Marin is a fabulous place to live and work, and clearer lines of communication will only make it better. Please engage with me. That is my message. [Contact Sears at 415.499.7331 or [email protected].]
Will you campaign for the office when it comes up in November 2012? Robin Sweeney, a former Sausalito council member and longtime family friend, says I should answer that question with either “I’ve learned all this about the county; it’s an awful job, and I’m quitting now” or “I’ve learned all this about Marin, and why should I let it go to waste?” I’m not publicly committing on the subject right now. However, I will say this: I’m loving my job.