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How BART plans to discipline director who made racist comment

BART arrives at Powell Station in San Francisco. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

The BART Board of Directors will soon decide how to discipline a member who apologized for using racist language in a board meeting—a first for the transit governing body.

A decision on punishment for director John McPartland will be up for a vote at Thursday’s regular meeting. It will be the first time a BART director is formally censured, said Board President Janice Li. 

“It’s less about John and more about how do we move forward and how do we do it right,” said Li, who represents parts of San Francisco. “We should be figuring out what it means to respect one another in a public setting.” 

At the board’s Jan. 12 meeting, McPartland called a presentation on BART’s racial equity work by Black staffers “cotton-picking inspirational.” 

BART director John McPartland | Courtesy BART

McPartland, who is white, has served as director since 2008 and is a member of the NAACP. He apologized and pleaded ignorance on Tuesday. He further said he was writing a formal apology as well as personally apologizing to the staff members. 

“I am quite frankly mortified that I would cause that much grief to anybody that I hold in that much respect,” McPartland previously told The Standard. “I am acknowledging my ignorance and sincerely apologize. I accept anything that ends up coming his way.”

Calls to censure McPartland only grew after the apology. He also told a Black lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2019 that she was “very articulate” and suggested she go to law school, and called Robert E. Lee an “exemplary general” in 2020 during a discussion on Black Lives Matter protests.

During a phone interview with The Standard on Wednesday, he further cast Lee—who led the pro-slavery Confederate Army into strategic blunders during the American Civil War—as a “military genius” who should also be remembered as a racist slave owner. 

BART General Manager Bob Powers called the Jan. 12 comments “unacceptable” and “embarrassing” in an email to staff this week. 

Li said the recent comments directed at staff added a different element to spur action from the board than in the past. The BART board may only publicly censure fellow directors and remove them from committee assignments for violating their code of conduct, and disqualify them from participating in a discussion or vote on the matter. 

“Because it’s never been used before, it’s not like we have a blueprint,” Li said. The BART Board of Directors meets virtually on Thursday starting at 9 a.m. with in-person public comment available at 2150 Webster St. in Oakland.