Caltrain begins to loosen San Mateo County’s grip by hiring a new attorney

Daily Post Staff Writer

The process of making Caltrain independent of the influence of San Mateo County’s political leaders will soon begin with a change in law firms.

The railroad’s board on Thursday (May 6) will vote on a three-year, $6 million contract with Oakland firm Olson Remcho.

Caltrain is dropping the firm Hanson Bridgett because of the deal the board struck in August in order to get Measure RR, the one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax, on the ballot in the railroad’s three counties, San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara.

Hanson Bridgett is also SamTrans and the county’s transportation authority’s attorney, and if they continued to work for Caltrain, that would be a potential conflict of interest.

As part of the deal, the Caltrain board agreed to appoint a new attorney who is not the same as SamTrans’ by November 2021. The agreement also requires the board to recommend by Dec. 31, 2021 a new or changed governance structure that gives Caltrain more independence from San Mateo County and more influence by Santa Clara and San Francisco counties.

Attorney James Harrison will act as the primary attorney for Olson Remcho and will appear at Caltrain board meetings.

Olson Remcho is the same law firm that the board hired in March 2020 to investigate the governance issues that came to a head when the board was trying to get its sales tax measure on the ballot.

Issues between leaders in San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties came to a head last summer when the Caltrain board needed to get approvals from the three counties to put Measure RR on the ballot in the three counties. The feud was largely related to the fact that Caltrain is run by SamTrans, San Mateo County’s bus agency.

San Mateo County is in control of the rail line because the other two counties still owe it a combined total of $19.6 million from the original purchase of the rail line from Southern Pacific in 1991.

It looked like that dispute was going to keep the tax off the ballot, since all three counties and their transit agencies would have to approve it before it went to voters. But at the last minute, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency Board Director Steve Heminger hammered out a deal that included getting a new attorney.

Two Oakland firms, Olson Remcho and Meyers Nave Inc., were the top finalists for the job. But Chief Financial Officer Derek Hansel said Olson Remcho scored the highest in interviews and evaluations for the law firms.

The board meets at 9 a.m. on Thursday.