John Russo is getting ready to pack his bags on June 10, ending his 11-year term as Oakland City Attorney to start his new position as Alameda City Manager on June 13.
Russo, 52, served as an Oakland city councilmember from 1994-2000 before becoming Oakland’s first elected city attorney in 2000. He served three terms, and he also ran unsuccessfully for the State Assembly in 2006.
Now it’s up to the Oakland City Council to decide who will be the next city attorney. They have 60 days after the position becomes vacant to get five votes together for someone to finish out Russo’s term. If no one is selected by that time, then council members will have to ask residents to vote for their new city attorney.
In this exclusive interview, Russo spoke with Oakland North about his final days as city attorney and reflected on his last 16 years as an elected official, the current situation with gang injunctions and what’s next for him as Alameda’s new city manager.
As a councilmember and city attorney, what kind of changes have you seen in Oakland?
As a councilmember, I’d seen a lot of good changes in the mid to late ‘90s … especially with the hiring of Robert Bobb, and a lot of talented people that he as city manager brought to Oakland. I thought we were making very good progress with making the city more responsive to residents’ and resident businesses’ concerns. Then it started going in the wrong direction in the middle of the last decade. But there were some good changes happening—I thought Oakland was making some good progress about 10 or 11 years ago, then it started going backward around 2003, 2004.
I think Oakland is in big trouble. Oakland is on a path where it is not going to be able to meet its obligations. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that there will be a cash crisis for this government in the next couple of years.
We’ve gone backwards in terms of customer service. We are stripped bare in terms of resources, and it didn’t have to be this way. A lot of the leadership in Oakland has been here, I think, for too long. They’re out of ideas and don’t know how to get us out of the crisis that is facing the city.
And what they are trying to do is point the finger elsewhere, “Oh it’s the bankers on Wall Street who did it.” The bankers on Wall Street didn’t tell Oakland to spend all this surplus we had six years ago. The bankers on Wall Street didn’t tell Oakland leadership to continue not to pay money into our pension funds. The bankers on Wall Street committed a lot of sins, but they’re not responsible for why the city of Oakland finds itself in the financial fiasco it’s in now.
Then what do you think Oakland leadership should prioritize?
I’ve said this two and half years ago when I was inaugurated into my third term as City Attorney: Oakland has to decide not between what we want and what we need, Oakland has to decide between what we need and what is essential to our survival as a municipality. That’s roads, public safety, sewers, fire departments—very basic core services. This Oakland political leadership has been having a bogus argument among itself for three years now trying to define what’s a core service. And a core service right now in Oakland is defined by any group that can bring 50 angry people to an Oakland City Council meeting. That’s not how you exercise leadership. You exercise leadership by saying ‘What are the things we have to do to keep this government going?’ I just don’t see much hope that that’s going to happen under this administration.
Why are you leaving your post as Oakland City Attorney?
I am leaving Oakland because I have fundamental legal disagreements and essential moral objections to the direction—or better put, lack of direction—demonstrated by this government and I could no longer serve as the lawyer for this government in terms of my own consciousness under these circumstances.
When they first offered me the job [as Alameda City Manager] and we started negotiating the contract, [there] was a lot of mixed feelings after being at Oakland City Hall for 16 and a half years. But at this time, I’ve processed it all, and I’m looking forward very much to taking over in Alameda.
Any idea has to who will be filling your position as city attorney?
Councilmember Jane Brunner has made it very clear that she would like to have this job and is working toward that. But the logical, non-political choice to fill out the balance for the reminder of his term would be my Chief Assistant, Barbara Parker.
She has gone to all the council meetings in that role since fall of 2000, she’s experienced in a wide range of issues, she’s got a Harvard background so she’s clearly a well-educated, top-notch attorney. She’s been the office for more than 15 years in addition to being my Chief Assistant for 10 years and all the staffers there know her.
Barbara would be lest disruptive to the organization. And the last thing this city needs is more upheaval and more uncertainty.
What do you hope for whoever ends up as your successor?
I would hope whoever follows me, will maintain the passion for the Neighborhood Law Corps and Special Prosecution Team. I hope they will continue to serve with direct services to those communities within Oakland that are most challenged by poverty, by blight, by institutionalized racism, by gangs.
Now, what does this mean for the state of gang injunctions?
The people who oppose the gang injunction have done a good job in making me the face of the gang injunctions. … From the beginning they decided to make me the face of the gang injunctions, because you couldn’t have a bunch of white activists calling a black police chief racist. I fit that bill much better.
When my office defended women’s rights to go unhindered to a reproductive clinic [by imposing a “bubble ordinance” that prohibits protesters from approaching women outside a clinic]—and my office defended that successfully—nobody said, “Oh, John Russo’s bubble ordinance.” They claimed it as the city council’s bubble ordinance. When we defended the city and got $7 million from Lehman Brothers to clean up their act up at Oak Knoll Hospital nobody said, “That was John Russo’s $7 million.” They said, “that’s our $7 million.”
When my office undertook the gang injunctions, I did it because that was what the OPD wanted to do and we were authorized by state law to file those cases on behalf of the people of California without going to the city council. We did what the police department asked us to do. We do that all the time. But because this issue became controversial for some good and some bogus reasons, it was placed at the feet of my office that this was my policy. It is not my policy. Having said that, I’m not walking away from the policy—I think it’s the right thing to do.
Whether or not there are anymore gang injunctions is up to the police department and then it’s up to the city council, because the city council says it’s a policy of Oakland to not do anymore gang injunctions—city council could do that. If the mayor orders the police department not to do anymore gang injunctions, the mayor can do that. But until those policies are elaborated by those bodies, it doesn’t make any difference who the city attorney is.
Does your departure have anything to do with the frustration that has come with filing gang injunctions?
Some of the opponents have tried to link the city council member vote to my departure as if one had something to do with the other. They don’t have anything to do with each other. They wanted to claim it like “Russo is having to resign because of the gang injunctions.” That’s ridiculous. In fact, if anything, the politics of the gang injunction have made me much more popular with people who actually live in Oakland’s more challenged neighborhoods and with the public at large. So if I wanted to be politically popular, I would have stayed and kept going with the gang injunctions. The gang injunctions had nothing at all to do with my decision to leave. My decision had to do with the opportunity that presented itself in Alameda, which was something I really wanted to do, and the fact that the opportunity presented itself in January at the same time I became convinced that this administration was not an administration that I would want to serve.
What would you like to be remembered for as Oakland’s City Attorney?
The Neighborhood Law Corps, which is a great program that has changed people’s lives. I’m very proud of that program. That program is the only program [for which] Oakland has ever won both the state and national grand prizes for innovation. We won the League of California Cities grand prize and we won the National League of Cities grand prize. It was something I considered my baby, and it comes out from having started my career as a legal aide lawyer.
What accomplishments are you proud of during the six years spent as councilmember?
I’m proud that I voted against floating more debt to play the stock market in 1997. Instead of paying our pensions, we floated pension bonds, saying basically we could make more money in the stock market than we were going to pay in interest and that would enable us to hold down our pension debt. Instead, according to the city auditor, we ended up another quarter billion dollars in the hole. And I saw that, and I voted the right way on it, and lost that vote by quorum unfortunately.
What do you wish you could have done differently as an elected city official?
There are votes you look back on. I can honestly say that whenever I did something or voted for something, I always did what I thought was in the city’s best interest in the long-term at that moment, but you look back on some votes and you say “Wow, I got that one wrong.” One vote I would take back was the vote to take out the 1996 Coliseum Commission and to create the Joint Powers Authority, because I think we created an unwieldy Joint Powers Authority for the Coliseum. The old Coliseum Commission we came up with I think has proven to be even less of a value then what we had before. It was kind of a privately held corporation and not as diverse or accountable as it might have been, and what we created instead was a deadlock in between the city and county. So we often can’t react and respond in ways that we should be able to. I would love to take that one back.
What are you looking forward to in your new post as Alameda City Manager?
I’m looking forward to working with Mayor Marie Gillmore. We’ve been friends and colleagues for years now. I have tremendous regard for her character and intellect. I really look forward to working with all of the city councilmembers.
Any projects you’ll be working on first as new city manager?
The most important thing will be the Alameda Naval Air Station. It’s the best development project in world —1,800 acres, bordered by water on three sides, views of the San Francisco skyline and it’s flat. Development hasn’t gone as well as it should have over the last few years, as it’s been the case with most navy bases, but I think there are ways to get that project moving. As soon as I get there I’ll be working on the bid to get the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory campus in Alameda. We’ll be putting our best foot forward, not just as government, but as a community to get that lab space.
Then you’ve got the pension gap. Alameda has it, as do most cities, and it needs to be addressed. We need a program over the next 10 years.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I have loved being an elected official in Oakland. I’ve been honored, deeply honored to do this work. I’ve lived and raised my kids in Oakland for 24 years and will continue to live here and be active in the community. My leaving is no reflection of how I feel about the honor I’ve been given by the people. My dispute is with the government, not with people.