City attorney position could be filled at council meeting tonight
on July 19, 2011
At tonight’s Oakland City Council meeting, three of the foremost items on the agenda will concern the vacant city attorney position: possibly voting in a replacement for John Russo, and approving two conflicting proposals that could change how the position is chosen.
Barbara Parker, Russo’s former chief assistant, has been acting city attorney since Russo resigned in May midway through his third term, to become the city manager of Alameda. According to the Oakland City Charter, the city council has 60 days from Russo’s departure to appoint a new city attorney to finish out his term, which expires in January, 2013. If the council does not appoint a new city attorney, a special election must be called within 120 days.
Tonight, councilmember Libby Schaaf (District 4), will bring a motion before the council to name Parker to the position. If Parker gets five votes tonight, she would finish out the remainder of Russo’s term, and be up for re-election in November, 2012, if she choose to run for the office again.
If the council does not name Parker, or anyone else, tonight, it would have to call a special election. The council already approved a special election for November 15— though what would appear on the ballot has not been determined, and also must be discussed tonight. (Putting Mayor Jean Quan’s proposed $80 parcel tax before the voters in November will also be on tonight’s agenda.)
Councilmembers will also vote on dueling proposals tonight on how the city attorney should be chosen in the future. Nancy Nadel (District 3) and Patricia Kernighan (District 2) have proposed a ballot measure that would change the city attorney into a position appointed by the city council, not chosen by the voters. The post was once an appointed position, but in 1998, voters passed former mayor Jerry Brown’s Measure X, which made it an elected post. In 2000, Russo, a former city councilmember, became the first elected city attorney.
Nadel said the city attorney is not the “people’s attorney,” and represents the city and the municipal government—therefore, she said, the person should be chosen by members of the city government—unlike, for example, the city auditor, who is responsible to the public. Nadel said a decade ago she was open to seeing how an elected city attorney would work, but soured on it after working with Russo. The council and Russo had high-profile clashes over gang injunctions and the city’s medical marijuana ordinance.
“In hiring your attorney, I think it’s very important to be able to have control over them if they’re not doing a good job,” Nadel said,” and not have to wait four years for the public to make that decision.”
Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) said he’s opposed to the measure put forth by Nadel and Kernighan. De La Fuente has an alternative measure up for discussion tonight that would waive the city council’s authority to fill the position, and let the voters decide November 15. De La Fuente said the city attorney should have the “security” of being elected by the voters and not be swayed by the mayor and city council.
“I think it makes sense to have the city attorney elected by the people and be responsible to the people,” he said. “He or she will have the ability to make decisions or take on issues that are in the interest of the entire city.”
If the council does not appoint Parker tonight and also does not put the city attorney position on the November 15 ballot, it still has 120 days to call a special election for the position. However, the city clerk also requires ballot measures for candidate elections be filed 117 days before the election, meaning the city will have run out of time in order get a new measure on the November 15 ballot, and will instead have to hold a second costly special election in December.
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