In Oakland, the city attorney represents the city government, advising its departments on legal matters and ensuring that city officials are constitutionally sound in their practices. When former City Attorney John Russo left his position in June before completing his third term to become the city manager of Alameda, Barbara Parker became the woman for the job.
Parker had worked in the city attorney’s office for 20 years, serving as chief assistant city attorney for 10. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has worked as an assistant US attorney for the northern district of California. Upon his departure, Russo recommended Parker and named her “acting city attorney.” Within 60 days of Russo’s decision, the city council officially appointed Parker as Oakland’s city attorney.
Parker has had a full load on her plate since she was confirmed by the council in July, from the city attorneys office’s attempt to implement stricter rules for businesses with liquor licenses such as bars and liquor stores, to the series of gang injunctions being placed throughout the city. Russo, her predecessor, publicly clashed with other city officials over the gang injunctions. Now Parker is hoping to collaborate with city officials to build a cohesive unit as they work to solve some of the city’s major issues.
Now, three months into office, Parker discusses her transition into the city attorney’s role, some of the problems that Oakland faces and the ways that the city must work to overcome them.
Oakland North: When you were confirmed as acting city attorney, what was the first thing to come to your mind?
Barbara Parker: The first thing that I confronted, having been here for a number of years, was the budget. We have been reduced to 33 staff members, 19 of whom are attorneys, but the work hasn’t decreased. The issues the council is taking are very proactive and the issues we need to advise on are increasing.
So I looked at our staff and reorganized the office with the goal of trying to protect taxpayer dollars and, to the extent we can, bring more work in-house.
We’re increasing our focus on coordination of code enforcement, nuisance and rent enforcement action by creating a separate unit for that purpose. We will have an attorney addressing problem liquor outlets and another attorney who will be dealing with some of the code enforcement and rent issues. That unit will include hotels that cater to prostitution.
We’re also going after blight including illegal dumping, substandard housing outlets. We’re stepping up what we’re doing with liquor outlets because they are magnets for crime. Were also expanding the public safety unit. We’ve increased the size of the unit and we want them to have more resources so they can work with the police department on crime induction strategies.
There’s the curfew ordinance proposal and also a policy proposal to look into an additional gang injunction in East Oakland. All of those things require a lot of research about what’s permissible because it has to be constitutionally sound. We’re in a public safety crisis and unless we can address this, it’s really hard for Oakland to fulfill its promise, its greatness. So we’re focusing issues on ways to address crime and hopefully reduce it.
Oakland North: How would you define government transparency?
Barbara Parker: I think it’s really well stated in the Brown Act where it says government exists to represent and serve the interest of the people. It means a member of the public can come in and access the process, gather the documents and understand how we get from position one to the decisions.
Oakland North: What will that look like in your work with the council and the people of Oakland?
Barbara Parker: We’re really working for the people; it’s the people’s government. The people are entitled to know what the decisions are and who’s making those decisions, how they’re made and what the city’s relying on. For me, it’s the ability of the public to be able to pull back the veil and find out how the government made the decision, see those decisions in writing, attend the meetings and observe the deliberations.
I think we’re on the same page with government transparency, I think it’s a very critical piece. The role of the city attorney is not to just push paper around but to serve the people’s interest and use this office for public good.
Oakland North: What do you plan to do differently than your predecessor, John Russo?
Barbara Parker: Well, I think, when John came into office, we had more resources. Now we are looking at shrinking resources. It’s a different time. We’re trying to do more with less.
The second difference is that it’s more effective if the city can work together. I am involved in more collaboration, not slowing the process down, but making sure the ideas are on the table. Mr. Russo was not as collaborative with his approach.
Oakland North: You have said in other press interviews that you wanted to restart meetings between your office and the mayor’s office. Have those meetings begun?
Barbara Parker: Yes, they have.
Oakland North: How often do you meet?
Barbara Parker: Every two weeks with the mayor and with the city administrator. We’ve been meeting almost daily [with the city administrator] but we also have a standing meeting. It’s a very interactive process and it’s very refreshing to have a new city administrator and a relatively new mayor embrace the collaboration.
Oakland North: What are you planning to accomplish in those meetings?
Barbara Parker: When you’re trying to run a city and you have three major offices in the city, we want to keep each other abreast. It doesn’t mean we will always agree, but we are working close together.
I like to use the standing meetings to talk about problems; it avoids a lot of miscommunication. It’s taking a lot of time, but I think its what’s necessary to run a railroad, a fast-moving railroad. I’m hopeful that these standing meetings will help us get to strategic forward-looking thinking. That way we’re not just reacting. We need to have a vision. I think the standing meetings are helpful to keep us in touch.
Oakland North: Would you say the city council has been open to your appointment as city attorney?
Barbara Parker: I have been here since July and we had our first meeting last week and I’d say yes. There’s going to be strong personalities and a lot of different views, so there’s always going to be some tension and some advocacy, because that’s what we’re supposed to do, advocate. But I feel that it’s very respectful, open and collaborative.
Oakland North: Your career in Oakland city government spans 20 years. Tell us a little bit about some of the changes you’ve witnessed in the city during that time.
Barbara Parker: One is financial. When I came to the city, you got your job offer and they’d say you might be terminated due to lack of funds, but there was no one being laid off.
[In the 1990’s] they also had the needle exchange activities when the spread of HIV was occurring and one of the major transmission vehicles was intravenous drug use. It was unlawful to distribute the syringes so the city council adopted a policy to make [allowing syringe users to exchange used needles for clean ones] a high priority. And the council actually, in the form of civil disobedience, distributed the needles.
It was also a time when women and people of color were integrating into the police and fire departments. There were a lot of grievances and actions that the city was taking. There were a lot of programs for affirmative action, to bring workforces together and there was a lot of resistance to change.
Oakland North: What changes in crime have you seen throughout the city since you began working in Oakland?
Barbara Parker: What we are experiencing now is kind of similar to when [convicted heroin dealer] Felix Mitchell was around. He was sort of the kingpin, so there were a lot of shootings throughout the city, the same kinds of things were seeing now, but even more random shootings. There was a crime epidemic then. He was eventually prosecuted and went to prison. There was upswing in crime, sort of like The Godfather when there’s one person in charge, so then everybody was fighting over turf.
The war on crime had a lot of people being put in prison and then a lot of people being released, sort of like a revolving door for what people would call petty drug crimes. So people got records and they didn’t get jobs and then they became recidivists.
The city also had a lot of initiatives [in the early 90s]. They were looking at curfews, they were looking at gang injunctions and a lot of other things but they did not implement many of them. They worked with the schools, with the development of the truancy program. And then for reasons that no one can ever explain, the crime went down and there weren’t many gangs. There were more problems in San Francisco. It seemed like [crime] began to pick up again with the downturn in the economy.
Former Mayor Elihu Harris complained that Oakland, in an attempt to be a diverse city, had a lot of public housing when other places were refusing to have public housing. He felt when concentrated in one area, people didn’t see other opportunity and a way out. So the crime and lack of opportunity went hand in hand.
It’s an issue that we need to deal with comprehensively. There’s many levels to it. The city has been working on that and we’re working on it again because if you address the people on the streets now, you do not address the underlying issues like education, unemployment—some of which the city does not have control over.
Oakland North: You litigated the Kreeft vs. Oakland case, which centered around how to calculate a retiree’s pension and what the city has to pay to its retirees. That lawsuit saved the city more than $13 million. You also helped pass the city’s “bubble ordinance” which restricts abortion opponents from coming within eight feet of abortion clinics to protest or speak to those choosing to use the clinics. Why were those issues so important to you?
Barbara Parker: The Kreeft case set the law on retirement. It was important because it set the guideline for how a person’s retirement pension is determined. I don’t think it has any significant policy implications, but it was a very important case to the city because it saved the city so much money.
The “bubble ordinance” is very critical to the city and the court has upheld the ordinance. It had some concerns about the implementation and about fairness to those who advocate for access to the clinics and those who are against it. So we are in the process of tweaking it so women will have the right access to reproductive services and care. And that is critical because it means having control of your own body and making your own decisions. The council is unanimously in support of it.
Oakland North: Under your predecessor, the city attorney’s office filed two gang injunctions that impose curfews and other limits on alleged gang members in an effort to prohibit activities that foster gang activity. One injunction was filed against members of the North Side Oakland gang and the second one against members of the Nortenos in the Fruitvale neighborhood. What’s your stance on the gang injunctions?
Barbara Parker: I support the policy the council established. We’re going to go ahead with our next phase [during which the city council will explore the possibility of other injunctions] and we plan to put all of our energy into that. These are very clear and narrow tools. We’re waiting for the council’s direction because there are a lot of issues with resources, policies and what’s the most effective combination.
Oakland North: Are you already thinking about the 2012 election?
Barbara Parker: I am running in 2012 for city attorney and there’s a measure on the ballot that would change it to [a city council] appointment. If that passes, I would be happy to serve whether appointed or elected. But because it is not clear what that outcome will be, I am proceeding to establish my campaign and structure.