The MOBN! board is proud to endorse City Attorney Barbara Parker. We strongly encourage Oaklanders to vote for her in November. The factors that contribute to our endorsement include her record both as City Attorney and Chief Deputy City Attorney, her broad range of experience in the practice of law and in law office management, and her strong performance in the past year in reducing outside counsel costs by millions of dollars. We were also strongly influenced by the candidate’s responses to the MOBN! questionnaire, which we reviewed and compared to some of our own observations of the two candidates.
In her approximately ten years as Chief Deputy City Attorney during John Russo’s years as City Attorney, and in her first year as City Attorney after her appointment to complete Russo’s term, Barbara Parker has demonstrated unwavering professionalism, integrity and competence. While she was Chief Deputy, she was the most frequent representative of the City Attorney’s office at City Council meetings, where we often had cause to observe her even-handedness and professionalism in advising Council on both procedural and substantive matters.
Barbara Parker is a Harvard Law School graduate and a lawyer with experience in a broad range of public and private sector practices for more than thirty years. She has the depth of experience it takes to lead the City’s representation in these challenging times. The City Attorney’s office provides a broad range of legal representation to a municipal corporation with nearly a one billion dollar budget. The City Attorney is essentially the managing attorney of this mid-sized law office. Someone with Barbara Parker’s experience can best serve in this role.
In her first year in office, City Attorney Parker’s fiscal management of her department has been impressive. In the previous nine years, the City Attorney’s Office lost more than a third of its staff (19 attorneys and 14 support staff) to City budget cuts. As the need for legal services increased and the number of in-house lawyers declined, the cost of outside law firms had increased every year because of the loss of in-house resources.
But that pattern reversed when Barbara Parker became City Attorney. In the fiscal year that just ended (FY11/12), the cost of outside counsel is down almost 40 percent from the prior year, from about $6.4 million to about $4 million. This may be the most significant recent cost reduction by any still-operating department in City government.
We carefully reviewed the questionnaire responses we received from both candidates, and appreciate the time and effort they devoted to these. Some of the key responses and our reactions to them appear after the jump.
Nearly all of the questionnaire responses helped to differentiate the two candidates. Among the responses that struck us as most significant were these:
The Most Important Function of the City Attorney
We asked both candidates for their views on “the most important function of the City Attorney,” and the responses showed us very different views.
City council member Jane Brunner’s complete answer is here. But the part that stuck out for us was this:
When asked for advice today, the City Attorney’s office usually provides the advice that “It cannot be done.” I believe that the City Attorney’s job is to provide advice and legal options on how its clients can do what they want to do – to give the client options – assessing what the legal opportunities are, what the risks are, and then allow the client to decide how to proceed.
Just over eighteen months ago, we saw a dramatic example of what City Council Member Brunner is apparently talking about: then City Attorney John Russo advised the City Council that the Federal Government might criminally prosecute Council members who voted to license and permit marijuana growing facilities. Whether one supports or opposes Oakland’s efforts to allow such operations, there is no doubt that this is exactly what the Federal Government had in mind. There was much furor then among City Council members because they were told, quite correctly, ‘it cannot be done.” But that advice may well have saved City Council members from being prosecuted.
More recently, Ms. Parker’s office advised at a Council meeting that the City’s “no business with Arizona companies” resolution (#82727 C.M.S.) could not be applied to the award of a garbage collection contract because issuing a franchise contract is a regulatory function and not procurement. Ms. Brunner insisted on applying the resolution anyway without presenting any contrary legal argument or authority.
These are the clearest recent examples of the City Attorney telling the City Council “no, you cannot do this.” It certainly is an attorney’s job to counsel its clients against violating the law. If Ms. Brunner believes the City Attorney has tried to stop the City Council from taking actions that were not illegal, she should explain what she is referring to.
On the other hand, City Attorney Parker’s response included the following:
First, my primary mission as City Attorney is to represent the City – and by extension its residents, businesses and taxpayers – with the highest level of expertise, professionalism and integrity.
Second, the elected City Attorney must function as an independent watchdog inside City Hall to ensure that taxpayer resources are used appropriately, all Oaklanders are represented and the actions of our city government are transparent, fair and legal.
And third, I believe the elected City Attorney must act as a force for change in Oakland by using my Office’s resources to tackle Oakland’s serious problems and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Those resources can include litigation, legislation on the state or local level, community engagement and other creative strategies.
City Attorney Parker’s response – and her conduct since becoming City Attorney – demonstrate that she understands that elected officials in Oakland must be agents for change.
Transparency: Public Records and Lobbying
One of MOBN!’s key values is transparency. This is something that has been sorely lacking in Oakland for many years. Two areas of concern are public records and lobbying reform.
Public records: The responses of both candidates on the subject of public records are here. Both candidates acknowledge that the City’s approach to public records availability is not adequate. The situation is much worse than either of them acknowledges. The City’s approach to public record’s availability isn’t just inadequate, it is often atrocious and illegal. This is been a well-known fact, frequently brought to the City Council’s attention over many years.
City Council Member Brunner’s only comment on public records is that responses to requests are not sufficiently timely and that the City Attorney should take the lead in fixing the problem. Timeliness is hardly the only problem. City offices, employees and elected officials have routinely ignored public records requests unless they are pressed and threatened. Many City Council members have been among the worst offenders, often seeking to keep their e-mails, other communications and calendars private. Many e-mails are deleted from the City’s servers so that they cannot be later made available in response to Public Records Requests.
Council Member Brunner fails to address the Council’s long-term, ongoing refusal to meet its own obligations under the California Public Records Act, to demand that city departments meet their obligations or to explain why we should expect anything different if she is elected City Attorney.
City Attorney Parker’s response shows she understands the scope of the problem. In addition to stressing the importance that every Department head be trained to understand the importance of treating public records requests as a priority, she also understands the importance of technology:
We also need to update our technology. For example, the City’s on line records request system can be improved. I believe our system should be searchable, so the public can view all prior records requests to the City, including the City’s response and all responsive documents. Our on line legislative records system is low tech and will need to be updated. And we need to update the City’s email storage capacity so email records are retained indefinitely. Several years ago, the City Attorney’s Office proposed an email retention policy, but it was never scheduled. The City Attorney’s Office already retains email indefinitely on our own servers – the rest of the City should do the same.
Barbara Parker’s reinforcement of the importance of Public Requests in her communications with elected officials and agency heads also show that she understands both the importance of compliance and her department’s role.
Lobbying reform: Both candidates claim to support lobbying reform. But City Council member Brunner’s record in this regard is not an acceptable one. In early 2011, she sought to limit lobbyist reporting requirements so that no reporting would be required of employees of corporations, unions or other organizations who are paid to influence City policy. We supported a broader and better lobbying ordinance proposed by City Council member Schaaf. Council Member Brunner convened private meetings on the subject with the League of Women Voters and union representatives, and declined to allow MOBN! to participate. Thereafter, efforts to improve Oakland’s lobbying regulation were tabled.
City Attorney Parker is on the right side of this issue:
I agree with the proposal submitted by Councilmember Libby Schaaf to fix the Lobbyist Registration Ordinance – this clearly distinguishes me from my opponent. Councilmember Schaaf’s proposal would more clearly define lobbying as direct communication to officials, where the communicator is being compensated, with the purpose of influencing governmental decisions, outside of the public eye. This would be consistent with how the state and most local jurisdictions define lobbying.
Oakland is entitled to Public Officials who understand, and comply with, the City Charter’s provisions prohibiting Council Members from interfering with staff’s actions (Charter section 218) – what City Administrator Santana has publicly referred to as “everyone staying in their own lanes.” Both candidates state that they support this section.
But earlier this year Council Member Brunner demonstrated both a lack of understanding of this important provision, and a lack of understanding of an related ethical issue: City Council conflicts of interest.
In March of this year, the City Administrator reported that City Council Member Brooks had undertaken actions in connection with a recreation center in her district, which might have been in violation of section 218. Council was considering whether there should be further investigation, and the City Attorney’s office offered the opinion that because a violation would be a misdemeanor and could require Ms. Brooks’ removal from office, she should be disqualified from participating in Council action. Ms. Brooks ultimately absented herself from the discussion. But before she did so, Council Member Brunner stated she did not understand why Ms. Brooks should be disqualified – suggesting that she did not understand the ethical issue.
Oaklanders are entitled to a City Attorney who has a clear understanding of conflicts of interest and adherence to the highest ethical standards. The exchange between Council Member Brunner and the City Attorney’s representative concerning Council Member Brooks makes it clear that Ms. Brunner does not have that understanding. On the other hand, City Attorney Parker has reminded all city staff and elected officials of the importance of, and meaning of, Section 218.
Make Oakland Better Now! believes that the choice for City Attorney is a clear one, and that the reasons are well stated by Ms. Parker in her response to our final question:
I have worked my entire career to maintain the highest level of integrity, professionalism and independence. I believe they are critical qualifications for Oakland’s City Attorney to possess.
Our City Attorney must be a watchdog to safeguard fair and honest City practices free from political influence and unfair dealing. It’s the City Attorney’s job to ensure that everybody knows and plays by the rules regardless of political influence or position. This is my vision for the City Attorney’s Office: to be a force for change both in the community and inside City Hall. I want this office to help Oakland move forward to a new era in which our city government is highly functional, transparent and responsive to all businesses and residents – an era in which the City deals seriously with the challenges and crises facing Oakland.
Barbara Parker is an example of the kind of public official Oakland needs. We urge all Oaklanders to learn as much as they can about both of the candidates, and, if they agree with us after educating themselves, to vote for Barbara Parker for City Attorney.