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When Oakland Deputy City Attorney Demetrius Shelton ran for a seat on the State Bar Board of Governors last year, members of the Santa Clara County Bar Association warned that there might be repercussions. And they weren’t kidding. Santa Clara has now officially refused to endorse Shelton for another board seat that comes open this year, and thereby stirred up intense debate over a time-honored — but controversial — method of choosing State Bar representatives from four Bay Area counties. For many years — no one is sure exactly how long — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties have had a “gentlemen’s agreement” that’s supposed to rotate State Bar board representation among the four counties, which make up the State Bar’s District Three. Last year’s open seat was supposed to go to Santa Clara, and while all four counties endorsed Tamara Lopez, a deputy Santa Clara County counsel, Shelton, a member of the Alameda County Bar Association’s Board of Directors, chose to run too. As a result, the vote was badly split between four candidates, with neither Shelton nor Lopez winning. Instead, wild-card candidate Carl Lindstrom Jr., a San Jose solo practitioner, took the seat. That irked Santa Clara’s bar association, which now refuses to endorse anyone in a race featuring Shelton, Sunnyvale solo Tahir Naim and Richard Tamor, a partner in Oakland’s Tamor & Tamor. Under the terms of the age-old agreement, this year is Alameda’s turn at the seat, but Santa Clara says that’s too bad. “We were pretty clear a year and a half ago when [Shelton ran] that we would be quite concerned if Demetrius ran for the Alameda seat, and we would have a problem with the endorsement,” Santa Clara County Bar Association Executive Director Chris Burdick said recently. “We were disappointed [last year],” she added, “and didn’t feel that an individual should now gain the benefit of the agreement when the choice had been made to disregard the agreement.” Especially, she said, when the violator is part of the Alameda bar’s leadership. San Mateo and Contra Costa counties, meanwhile, have joined Alameda in endorsing Shelton. The Bar is sending ballots out today; the last day of voting is June 30. The four-county “gentlemen’s agreement” was instituted to assure that the larger counties — Santa Clara with 8,708 voting lawyers and Alameda with 7,145 — wouldn’t always dominate the elections. San Mateo has only 4,389 voting lawyers and Contra Costa 4,108. But despite that noble intent, the agreement, which the counties renewed in writing in February 2001, has its critics. One of the earliest was Joseph Bergeron, who ran and won in 1991 from San Mateo, even though it was Contra Costa’s time in the big seat. “I was described as the guy who upset the apple cart,” Bergeron, now a San Mateo County Superior Court judge, said in a 1999 interview about the agreement. Lindstrom, who won last year and whose seat is up for grabs in the upcoming election, says he respects the “underlying principles” of the counties’ agreement, but worries that it could exclude qualified candidates. He said he was the “beneficiary” of Shelton’s run last year and believes Shelton is now experiencing “political payback” from his contemporaries in the volatile world of Bar politics. Shelton, preferring not to rock the boat, would only say he respects and appreciates Santa Clara’s decision not to endorse. “Those things happen in these types of elections,” he said. Alameda County Bar Association President Richard Waxman, however, didn’t mince words, saying he was “very disappointed” by Santa Clara’s decision and noting that his group endorsed Lopez last year, even though one of their own was in the race. “We did everything that not only were we required to do, but [abided by] the agreement and the spirit of it,” Waxman, a partner at Oakland’s Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean, said. “It is not for me or any other member of our board to make decisions on behalf of other members of our organization” who might want to run for the State Bar board. Santa Clara’s Burdick insisted, however, that her group is living up to the spirit of the agreement by endorsing no one — not even this year’s lone candidate from Santa Clara County. “We think the present situation is unfortunate,” she wrote in an e-mail to all three other county bar associations. “But Demetrius was advised of the terms and intent of the District Three agreement last year by a number of people, including at least three people from the SCCBA.” Even so, some say the current dispute undermines the counties’ agreement and sets the precedent for future rifts. And others — such as current candidate Tamor, who says he was never contacted by the Alameda bar to be considered as the county’s anointed representative — say the agreement reinforces the concept that the state and local bars are closed clubs. “Instead of being inclusive as it should be, [the agreement] acts as more of an exclusive function,” he said. “It might even hurt you these days because it seems you are one of the insiders, the Bar junkies, who don’t necessarily represent the standard Joes out there.” Contra Costa County Bar Association Executive Director Lisa Graves Reep said the agreement would undoubtedly be a big topic at the four counties’ annual meeting later this year. “We agree with the spirit of it,” she said, “and it will be interesting to see if events like this cause the bar associations in District Three to rethink whether it makes sense.”

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