By J. Douglas
After Oakland voters approved the popular election of the Oakland City Attorney in 1998’s Measure X, they were faced with a choice between electing the longtime appointed holder of that office-Jayne Williams-or a member of the City Council –John Russo. They chose Russo.
A little over a decade later, Oakland voters are being asked to make a similar choice: to give a full four-year term to City Attorney Barbara Parker, who was appointed to the post by the City Council after Russo resigned in 2000, or to replace her with veteran City Councilmember Jane Brunner.
Voters are being asked to choose between the two candidates for a position when a majority of Oakland citizens don’t appear to have a clear idea what, exactly, the City Attorney does or how the agency affects the city’s residents.
At a recent West Oakland candidates’ debate, for example, the first question posed to Parker and Brunner was to tell the audience the duties of the City Attorney’s office.
For the record, the City Attorney’s office represents the mayor, the City Council, the police department, and other city agencies in litigation, provides legal advice to city officials, and prepares contracts for the administration and ordinances and resolutions for the Council.
How voters decide may be determined by what qualifications they think are most important in a City Attorney. If the priority is experience in running the City Attorney’s office-one of the largest law firms in Oakland-that would favor Parker, who has been an attorney in the office for 20 years, 10 of them as chief assistant to John Russo.
If the priority is political experience and expertise, that will favor Brunner, a practicing attorney with the Siegel & Yee law firm who has served for 16 years on City Council.
Meanwhile, the City Attorney’s race is one of the more bitterly contested local races in the November Oakland election.
Brunner has charged Parker with what the Councilmember calls a “pay to play” practice, saying that “Outside attorneys who receive contracts from the City Attorney’s office are the key financial contributors to [Parker]’s campaign. The appointed City Attorney has disclosed that she received a total of over $34,000 from attorneys at law firms who received more than $8.7 million in outside contracts from the City Attorney’s Office in the past three years.
“Now we see the very attorneys who benefited greatly from these contracts and these settlements contributing to the election campaign of the Appointed City Attorney.”
Parker replies that she was “disappointed to see Councilmember Brunner use personal attacks in an effort to win this election.” Saying that “no campaign donor has ever or will ever receive preferential treatment from me or from my office, period,” the City Attorney has hit back with charges that Brunner has her own “pay to play” problem, noting that “a significant portion of Councilmember Brunner’s political contributions in this election have come from developers, lobbyists, and others with business before the City Council… Ms. Brunner also has solicited contributions from attorneys whose law firms have done or wish to do business with the City, including attorneys who have contributed to my campaign.”