In an email sent to press Friday night, the Oakland City Attorney’s office announced that Chief Assistant City Attorney Barbara Parker will be temporarily stepping into the city’s top legal job to fill the vacancy left by John Russo, who begins his new post as Alameda’s City Manager on June 13.
In a letter to the mayor and city council on Friday, Russo announced he was appointing Parker as his acting replacement effective June 10 because the council would not be able to choose someone else before he leaves office on Monday. The city council now has 60 days to appoint a replacement for the remainder of Russo’s term, which ends in December, 2012. If the council cannot select a replacement, it will have an additional 120 days to hold a special election to fill the City Attorney seat.
Parker, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has worked at the Oakland City Attorney’s office for 20 years, including serving for 10 as the Chief Assistant City Attorney. She has been involved in the city’s establishment of a “bubble zone” ordinance that prevents protesters from approaching women entering abortion clinics, Oakland’s anti-predatory lending ordinance, and worked to decriminalize medical marijuana. Before joining the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, she worked as an Assistant US Attorney for the Northern District of California.
In an interview with Oakland North earlier this month, Russo urged the city to select Parker as his successor, saying “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.”
In the statement released Friday by the City Attorney’s Office, Parker said she was eager to take the job: “I welcome this opportunity to continue to serve the City and residents of Oakland in this time of transition. Oakland has been a national trail-blazer in using the law in innovative ways to make our communities safer, to eradicate blight, to provide medicine for people suffering from illness or injury and to fight for equal access and citizens’ rights.”
The city attorney serves as the city government’s chief legal advisor, and Russo’s replacement will face several complex issues, including the implementation of two highly controversial gang injunctions and questions over the city’s plan to permit large-scale marijuana growing facilities.
Russo, a proponent of failed Proposition 19, which sought to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults, was nevertheless cautious about the city’s plan to permit and tax 8 large pot farms. In February, he told the council that he planned to recuse himself from advising the city on its pot farm plan after receiving warnings from federal and state officials that the farms might violate drug laws. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley had previously expressed similar concerns about the city’s liability regarding its Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance, but the council has been divided over whether or not to amend the ordinance.
The council has also been divided over whether to support the city’s gang injunctions — one has already been implemented in North Oakland, and a second one is proposed for the Fruitvale area — both of which were filed by the City Attorney’s Office. Russo, who supports the gang injunctions and says his office filed the cases at the request of the Oakland Police Department, told Oakland North earlier this month that he had taken the brunt of the criticism over the controversial measures, which some believe encourage racial profiling and violate civil liberties: “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.”
In May, the council narrowly passed a resolution to continue funding the two current injunctions, but also forbade the City Attorney’s Office from filing additional injunctions without the council’s approval.
Russo had previously clashed with several city officials over whether the Siegel and Yee law firm should be allowed to represent injunction defendants. Russo argued it presented a conflict of interest because the firm employs District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner and because attorney Dan Siegel is an unpaid advisor to Mayor Jean Quan. In February, a county judge ruled that the firm could do so, saying that Brunner would recuse herself from injunction-related decisions and that the firm had created a “firewall” between its legal work and the city’s actions.
Russo has maintained that his decision to take a new job in Alameda is not related to the controversy over the gang injunctions, telling Oakland North earlier this month that “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.”
Russo, who was the first Oakland City Attorney to be elected to the position, won the office three times and served for 11 years. He also previously served on the city council, first winning office in 1994 to represent the Chinatown and Grand Lake neighborhoods.