Li makes history as BART board president

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Thursday December 15, 2022
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BART director Janice Li was elected president of the transit agency's board of directors December 15. Photo: Courtesy Facebook
BART director Janice Li was elected president of the transit agency's board of directors December 15. Photo: Courtesy Facebook

BART Director Janice Li made history Thursday when she became the first queer woman of color to be elected president of the regional transit agency's board.

Directors voted unanimously 9-0 at their last regular meeting of the year December 15. Li had been serving as the board's vice president alongside outgoing president Rebecca Saltzman (District 3), a lesbian. This year marked the first time that the BART board had been led by two out women, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Li's term began immediately, and she was handed the gavel to finish the meeting.

Her first task was to have the board elect a vice president. Director Mark Foley, a straight ally, was elected to that position 8-1, with Director Debora Allen casting the lone no vote. An earlier motion to have District 6 Director Elizabeth Ames (Alameda County) serve as vice president was defeated 6-3. Foley represents District 2, which is in Contra Costa County.

Upon assuming the presidency, Li thanked the board, particularly Saltzman. "She showed me how to get things done in BART," Li said.

Li outlined three goals for the board: unity, respect for one another and BART staff, and a willingness to "push ourselves and the district."

BART Vice President Mark Foley, left, and President Janice Li stood in the boardroom following the vote December 15. Photo: Courtesy BART  

During his remarks, Foley, who served as board president during the COVID pandemic in 2021, said the district has the challenge of focusing on the customer experience. He brushed aside the divided vote for vice president.

"We are a team," he said.

Li, 35, was easily reelected by voters to a second four-year term on the BART board November 8 as she was unopposed. She represents District 8, which includes parts of San Francisco. She's the first queer woman of color and the first Asian American woman on the transit board. Li is the only Asian member of one of the country's three elected transit boards.

Under the new redistricted boundaries adopted in March for the board's nine seats, District 8 now has partial jurisdiction over BART's Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street, and Glen Park stations and full oversight of the Balboa Park station. It wraps around the city's northern and western neighborhoods to cover North Beach; Chinatown; the Marina, Richmond and Sunset districts, Ingleside, and Balboa Park.

In a phone interview when she kicked off her reelection campaign in June, Li said she wanted to remain on the BART board to ensure a number of pilot programs she pushed for, and were part of her first campaign platform, became a permanent part of the transit agency. They include the system's low-income fare program and its ambassador program, where unarmed police officers assist people on BART trains who are unhoused or in some form of crisis to connect to services.

There are three LGBTQ people on the BART board. In addition to Li and Saltzman, who represents District 3 that includes parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Bevan Dufty, a gay man, sits in the District 9 seat that includes part of San Francisco. Dufty was reelected in 2020 to a second four-year term and is a past BART board president. He's also a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and, in that capacity, represented District 8, which includes the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood.

Formerly the advocacy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Li in January took over as director of the Coalition for Community Safety and Justice. She leads the coalition's programs and AAPI community-based safety initiatives.

As of now, there are no Asian elected members on the boards of the Denver Regional Transportation District in Colorado or the East Bay's AC Transit. Alfred Twu, who is nonbinary, did run for the AC Transit at-large seat in November but lost the race.

Lesbian honored on her retirement
In another matter at the meeting, BART general manager Bob Powers announced the retirement of lesbian Paula Fraser, who has worked for the transit agency for 42 years and is stepping down from her role as assistant chief transportation officer, one of the highest ranking roles in the system. She started her career at BART in 1980 as a paramedic with BART police and rose through the ranks, Powers said.

Fraser said that she decided to join BART after she found it would be impossible to be an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard due to her sexual orientation. BART had a policy that didn't discriminate on that basis, she said. She was also impressed that BART had paid overtime holidays for Martin Luther King Jr., Chinese New Year, and Cinco de Mayo at a time when other organizations did not.

Powers pointed out that Fraser used her own money to pay for BART's first contingent in the San Francisco Pride parade in 1995.

Dufty praised Fraser's service. "I just had the opportunity to go to the White House with my son to see President [Joe] Biden sign the Respect for Marriage Act," he said, referring to the December 13 signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. "You're part of that continuum over the past couple of generations. Thank you for all that you've done."

Li, who joked that she was not born when Fraser began working at BART, said the agency is better for the queer staff like Fraser.

Fraser was also praised for knowing how to get things done by District 4 Director Robert Raburn and Foley.

Saltzman noted that it wasn't always easy being an out LGBTQ person at BART.

After the comments and congratulations, Powers presented Fraser with a crystal train.

"You'll no longer need to sleep with a cellphone under your pillow," he quipped.

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