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Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker. Photo courtesy of Oakland's City Attorney's Office.

Council poised to give city attorney power to enforce laws that now lack teeth

on June 29, 2023

The Oakland City Attorney’s Office is about to become more powerful, if the City Council passes an ordinance on July 18 that would enable City Attorney Barbara J. Parker to enforce all municipal laws. 

Currently, Parker, who was first elected in 2012, does not have the authority to enforce approximately half of Oakland’s 164 municipal ordinances. This makes Oakland an outlier compared to other large cities including San Jose, San Diego and Los Angeles, whose city attorneys are able to enforce all local laws. 

Without full authority, Oakland’s city attorney has sometimes had to rely on state laws to protect residents. 

For example, in 2017, the city attorney filed a lawsuit under state law to stop a debris-hauling company that was blowing dust from construction and demolition into a predominantly Black community in West Oakland, causing a number of neighbors to have difficulty breathing. 

“Having the clear authority and remedies under a local law would help a judge understand both the violations that have occurred regarding the sort of protections in Oakland law and the need for effective relief to protect, to vindicate, them,” said Scott Hugo, housing justice attorney in the City Attorney’s Office.

The measure, the office argues, will enable the city attorney to more equitably enforce laws meant to protect Oaklanders, especially those in historically marginalized communities. Without it, the city risks that those ordinances will be underenforced or not enforced. 

“As city attorney, I am committed to enforcing these rights for Oaklanders, especially our most marginalized residents who are disproportionately Black, indigenous, and other people of color,” Parker said. 

The City Council seems to agree that the office needs more enforcement power, with six members favoring the ordinance (and two absent) during the proposal’s first reading on June 20. In a separate matter, the council agreed to increase Parker’s salary from $20,301.55 per month to $25,582.55 per month, effective July 8. 

On a fiscal level, the ordinance would not increase the office’s budget and does not require additional staff, according to the city attorney’s office. The ordinance will be implemented by the office’s litigation teams including the Community Lawyering and Civil Rights, the Neighborhood Law Corps and the Housing Justice Initiative units, which are focused on injustices that impact ethnic minorities and other marginalized communities.

The ordinance provides for a range of remedies such as restitution and civil penalties, as well as non-monetary remedies such as injunctions.

Restitution is a particularly valuable remedy, Hugo said. It would allow Oakland to seek money or property that was wrongly taken from individuals, which is a way for the city to put money back into the pockets of those who have suffered harm.

Former City Attorney John Russo said the change is overdue. 

“The expansion of city attorney powers to fill some of the gaps in enforcement of the law is something that I fought for when I was Oakland’s first elected city attorney,” he said. 

Another example of the gap is seen with the city’s Equal Benefits Ordinance, which ensures that domestic partners are treated equally under employment benefits, regardless of their gender identities. However, it doesn’t specify the city attorney’s authority, leaving a blind spot.

Another instance is the city’s green building ordinances for both public and private developments. Under the proposed authority, the city attorney could enforce the code, advancing environmental justice and protecting Oaklanders from racially disparate health outcomes.

If the measure passes with at least six votes, the city attorney’s increased authority would begin immediately. If it passes with less than six votes, it will become effective in seven days. 

(Photo of Barbara Parker courtesy of City Attorney’s Office)

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