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Oakland City Attorney Appointed? Mayor Quan's Terrible Idea

Over the years and before Oakland had an elected lawyer starting in 2000, one of the main complaints was that an appointed Oakland City Attorney was too much the shill of the then-powerful Oakland City Council.  Of course, it was Oakland's mayor who made that complaint more often than others. At times, given that the Mayor couldn't trust who was talking, the lawyer or the council, the complaint was just. But all have agreed having Oakland's top lawyer at the hands of the Mayor would be equally disastrous, which is why it was not don when Oakland had the chance.

Now, with a massive turnover in institutional memory, comes newly-elected Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, pulling a fast one in suggesting Oakland have an appointed and not elected lawyer.  That can't be allowed to happen; here's why.

Mayoral Impulse And Oakland's Lawyer

I remember when, in 1997, and during the time I served as Economic Advisor to Mayor Elihu Harris, Elihu called then-Oakland City Attorney Jane Williams in for what became a blistering critique of her negotiations with the Golden State Warriors over revenue and cost payment splits at the Oakland Coliseum.  Jane may not know this, but Elihu wanted to impulsively fire her right after she left his office, and just because he was angry at the time.

How do I know?  Because I was just outside the door waiting for him to finish with her, so I could complete my meeting with him. See, the entire meeting between the two of them happened because I briefed Elihu on my displeasure with the outcome of the talks with the Warriors (I wasn't in control of the negotiations; Jane and Deena McClain, who still runs the Coliseum's legal affairs as of this writing, were).  Angry that the City of Oakland was going to pay more for stadium costs that Elihu wanted (as close to zero as possible), he got on the phone and called Jane over.  She arrived within 15 minutes.

Elihu told me to wait for him outside.  I knew what was about to happen.  After about three minutes, Elihu erupted.  You could hear Mayor Harris yelling all the way out to the Mayor's Office greeting area.  (And if you know the layout, that takes some doing.)

But with all that, Jane retained her job because she was appointed by the City Council.  Now, if Elihu indeed had the power he wanted to have at the time, Jane Williams would have been out of a job on the spot.    While Elihu's anger was more than justified, firing Jane would not have been the solution; thank God he wasn't able to do it.   But the other problem was Jane had the backing of the Oakland City Council; she wasn't able to be a truly independent agent.

Now, Mayor Quan wants the same power Elihu wanted and because she can't kick out Oakland City Attorney John Russo. Boo hoo. And it's not because John made a bad decision, but more a continuation of petty style issues that have plagued their relationship for years.  But before I continue, some backstory on why we now have an elected Oakland lawyer is in order.

When then-Oakland Mayoral Candidate Jerry Brown proposed Measure X, the initiative that changed the Oakland City Charter such that Oakland now has a "strong" Mayor and an elected City Attorney, the idea was to have a lawyer that, when it came to getting an opinion on a legal question, wasn't the tool of either the Mayor or the Oakland City Council.

Originally, Brown, now Governor of California, wanted the city's lawyer to be under him. But many on the Oakland Charter Review Committee, and Oakland elected officials, balked at the idea, saying that they couldn't trust the view of a Mayor-appointed lawyer, let alone one picked by the Oakland City Council. The result was Measure X, passed in 1998, had the provision for an elected lawyer, so when Oakland voters approved it, that position became the law of the city. Former Oakland District Two Councilmember John Russo became Oakland's first elected lawyer in 2000, and has won re-election twice since, in 2004 and in 2008.

Now, 12 years later, new Oakland Mayor Jean Quan wants to go back to the old system.  Her reasons are, to be frank, surprisingly less than one would expect from any mayor of a big city.  While Quan's complaint to some in the online press has been that she "can't get briefed" from the City Attorney - and to people who don't know Oakland's history such that they can challenge her on her comment - the reality is Quan's never liked Russo's style.

Mayor Quan has complained about Russo's office for some time, and the word's around town.  It's not that Russo has avoided briefing her - that's not true and that she would even allow the public to think that is shameful - the truth is she didn't even like the legal views he came up with.  This is also true for Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who's made several statements in opposition to legal opinions coming from Russo's office, of course, only when the City Attorney's views differed from her own.

So the questions come: "Why doesn't Jean (Mayor Quan) like John Russo?"  Who cares?  That anyone would ask such a question is immature (that word again) in itself.  Here's some news: Mayor Quan's not supposed to like John Russo, she's supposed to work with him.

What's happened is - for a host of reasons - Oakland's City Hall has become more like high school that it's ever been in the past (the "thousands of games Elihu would refer to) and now prickly personalities and thin-skins rule the day.  And in this environment, high school-level behavior and petty jealously can impact power positions at a dangerous level.

Quan has worked to squeeze both Russo's City Attorney Office of needed revenue to maintain staff and be effective, and has done the same with the office of Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby as well.  And that was through the city's Budget And Finance Commitee, before Quan became Oakland's mayor. Now Jean seems to be wringing her hands and saying "I'm Mayor of Oakland. I can really screw with Russo now," and trying to do so.

Mayor Quan was just elected, and for all practical purposes by a fluke.  Like the election outcome or not, that's a fact.

Because of that, Quan can't overplay her hand, yet she's starting to show signs of doing exactly that.  Quan's laser focus should be on creating jobs in Oakland, and saving California Redevelopment, which is a great tool to use in that effort.  Thinking about how to get even with someone for opinions and views not taken in the past is totally unproductive for a person in a role that's supposed to be about building a city's future.

That's what mayors are elected to do.

Stay tuned.
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