John Russo has been unhappy as Oakland's city attorney for a long time. He rarely attends city council meetings, he hasn't shown up for closed-session meetings with the council for at least two years, and his public feuds with Mayor Jean Quan and several councilmembers have roiled city politics. But Russo may have an out. Late last week, the Oakland Tribune was first to report that Russo is one of the three finalists to become Alameda's next city manager.
And as the Express first noted last Friday on its web site, Russo may have the inside track to the job because of large campaign donations he made last year. Campaign finance reports show that Russo donated at least $1,750 in the second half of 2010 to the same three Alameda city leaders who ousted the last city manager. As this newspaper also reported last month, some island residents fear that those same three city leaders — Mayor Marie Gilmore, Vice Mayor Rob Bonta, and Councilwoman Lena Tam — may be attempting a power grab inside Alameda City Hall. The three also have the power to select the next city manager.
Records show that Russo donated $1,000 to Gilmore's mayoral campaign, making him one of her largest contributors. Russo's contribution may not sound like much, but Alameda political campaigns tend to be low-budget affairs. Gilmore only reported spending a total of $62,000 on her mayoral campaign. Ex-state Senator Don Perata, by contrast, spent about a $1 million on his unsuccessful bid to become Oakland's mayor. Quan spent about $380,000.
Russo also donated $500 to Tam's city council campaign (she spent $44,000 total). He made the contribution on July 10 — just days after it was revealed that Tam was under investigation for leaking city documents to developer SunCal and the Alameda firefighters union at a time when both were negotiating deals with the city. Freelance journalist Michele Ellson reported on her blog The Island that Russo also had declared Tam to be innocent at a fund-raiser at the time. The vocal support for Tam from Oakland's elected city attorney, coupled with his donation, represented a strong vote of confidence during a difficult time for the Alameda councilwoman.
Two months after Russo publicly backed Tam, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced that her office would not be filing criminal charges against the councilwoman, citing a lack of evidence. O'Malley, however, did not address the ethics of a city leader who was supposed to be protecting the interests of Alameda taxpayers, but was e-mailing city information to two special interests groups who were trying to extract as much money as they could from said taxpayers.
It's somewhat unusual for an elected Oakland city leader to involve himself in Alameda politics. Russo's donations also raise questions as to whether he has been eyeing the Alameda job for some time, considering how he feels about some of Oakland's elected leaders. Records also show that no other elected official in Oakland government made donations to Alameda candidates last year. Russo also backed the right candidates. Gilmore won the mayor's office and Bonta and Tam won two of the three available spots on the city council. Records show that Russo also donated $250 to Bonta.
In late December, after the election, Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam formed a majority voting bloc to oust Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant during a controversial closed-door meeting. Russo then applied for Gallant's job shortly after the city advertised it, and quickly vaulted to one of the three finalists for the position. Gilmore and Bonta are leading the search for the new city manager. And they only need three votes on the five-member council to select Russo for the job.
Alex Katz, a spokesman for Russo and the Oakland City Attorney's Office, said Russo had previously donated to Tam and Gilmore, and has a history of donating to candidates in the cities of Richmond and Piedmont. Russo also is said to be friends with Gilmore and Tam, which, coupled with his past financial support, could enhance his prospects of landing the job even more.
Still, Russo appears to have strong competition for the Alameda position. The Island also revealed that the two other finalists both have city manager's experience. And one of them, David Brandt, spent a decade inside Alameda City Hall. He used to be an assistant city attorney and then an assistant city manager before becoming the city manager of Redmond, Oregon. The other finalist is Millbrae City Manager Marcia Raines.
If Russo lands the Alameda job, the Oakland city council has the power to appoint his replacement for the rest of his term, which expires in 2012. Those who might be interested in replacing him include Oakland Councilwomen Jane Brunner and Desley Brooks and former Oakland Councilman Danny Wan.
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