How to Pick a City Attorney, Oakland-style

The garden island on Lakeshore in the late spring.

This morning I finally made it down to Cana, our wonderful new café and restaurant on Lake Park Avenue near Lakeshore, for a café con leche. Unfortunately, they had just run out of that sweet mild drink (sorta like me, eh?), but I still enjoyed what I had at an outside table on our second dry and summery day. Is it possible that the rainy season is really over??

This place has already become popular and a good spot for people watching, which also means people judging for me. While I was waiting for my coffee, a woman tied her dog on the other side of the little wrought iron fence and started to come in. The dog barked loudly and a nearby toddler covered his ears in reaction. The woman looked embarrassed and went back to discipline the dog.

About 10 minutes later after I had gotten my breakfast treats and was relaxing outdoors, I saw the woman still trying to “discipline” this poor dog. I couldn’t help but notice her yanking his leash sharply numerous times. Even from where I was sitting at the other end of the fenced in area, I could feel her anger rising. I’m sure the poor dog could too, as she yanked him harder and harder. A few times she attempted to walk away but then she’d stop and start back, apparently trying to coaxe him not to react. Finally, she gave up and yanked him off down the street.

I had tried to shoot her a look of disapproval but she might as easily have taken it as disapproval of the dog (this was a late realization). It’s hard to know what to do to that might lessen rather than increase an angry reaction when you see someone abusing a creature that is smaller than them or otherwise dependent on them. Should you make a suggestion, chastise, or what?

I don’t know-but anyone who has ever had kids knows that walking tentatively out of the bedroom while rushing back at the first sound of crying, will encourage, actually teach, a child to cry to get out of the bedroom and back in the family circle. It can turn bedtime into a battle ground instead of a respite for both.  I imagine this dog also got the message and the other message about the angry, out-of-control owner. Most of us need help learning to be responsible for other creatures and some of us just shouldn’t try it at all.

Another cafe on Lakeshore.

In Oakland another little struggle is taking shape. It seems the battle to trim the budget without devastating already limited resources should be the number one concern for all of us. But, now that our police chief seems to be settling in (OPOA is not. All signs point to a campaign to embarrass him and the rest of city government in order to forestall a pension giveback), City Attorney John Russo has decided to change his profession while maintaining his high level of pay and remove  his charms to the taxpayers and city employees of Alameda.

I’m not being sarcastic about Mr. Russo’s charms. He was my council member and a good one. He is smart, funny, and acerbic.  But, and the but has grown, he was not so charming for the other folks who were elected to run our city and he made enemies of them or they of him. It doesn’t much matter which way it happened, (don’t kid yourself that this is just on account of Dan Siegel’s relationship to the mayor. This is longstanding) but it did and Oakland’s legal affairs became more and more difficult to manage as a result.

John has now consolidated his friends and his enemies into opposing forces-maybe that’s just a byproduct of being ambitious and determined sprinkled with a good dose of the arrogance that accompanies both. I wish him luck wherever he goes while  hoping that our next city attorney will be a little more hesitant to leap into the fray.

That leads us to the next point. Our new mayor, Jean Quan, who is smart and thoughtful, and a died-in-the-wool policy wonk, is leaning toward pushing for a change in the way we pick our city attorneys, that is, back to the days of appointing them.

I’m not sold on that. In fact I think I rather oppose a return to the days when the city attorney-and I was there and watched it happen- glanced around the room, particularly at the mayor, before making her legal pronouncements. It won’t do for the citizens of Oakland to get their legal advice on critical issues from someone who is beholding to the mayor whoever she may be.

It’s really about the type of person who runs. Everyone who knew John Russo, including those of us who supported him, wondered why he would run for a job that would reduce his policy making prerogatives. We thought, turns out we were right, that he might be tempted to keep a hand in that.

Many folks have suggested that Jane Brunner shouldn’t be appointed for that exact reason, but I’m not so sure. I think Jane has had her chance to do that (policy making), has missed her chances to move up, and maybe wants to be an attorney full-time now.

The city attorney job should be attractive to a long-term council member-it comes with more than twice the salary and fewer hours.  Anyway, I can’t help salivating at the prospect of North Oaklanders shuffling through the choices of an open-seat election. Of course, the talk is that changes are also coming soon in District 5-fun all around.

In any case, there are many competent attorneys in the department now who would be able to step into John’s shoes while, perhaps, restricting them to a narrower path. Returning to the days of appointed attorneys would require a charter change and cannot happen immediately so we have time to contemplate the possibilities.

The proposed city budget will be out any day now and it will probably have a dampening effect on political diversions. Meanwhile we await the bloodletting in our city, our state, and our nation’s capital, sigh. Come out on April 4th, “Join us for a National Day of Action to make your voice heard. It’s the least you can do, really, the least.

1 Comment on "How to Pick a City Attorney, Oakland-style"

  1. While it may be politically useful for you to praise Jean Quan for her savvy, this is not my view of her nor that of any other person I know in Oakland.

    A relevant example is her preliminary budget released to City Council members this week. I will be happy to forward the .pdf files to you if you would like to read them and weep. Quan’s budget information is, as usual, completely opaque–because Oakland’s financial accounting system is, and has been for decades including all the years Quan was chair of the Council’s Finance Committee, a total mess.

    In addition, Quan lists all Oakland city services as “priorities” which means that nothing is a priority. She hasn’t thought this through at all–it’s incompetent business as usual in Oakland. She mentions perhaps using performance measurements to help manage city finances. Performance-based budgets are standard procedure in cities that work and have long been proposed for Oakland, and long rejected. As it is we cannot tell which city programs and which city services are cost effective.

    My take on Quan is that she is the perfect embodiment of the Peter Principle.

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