To say that the past few months have been rough on Oakland's relationship with its city attorney would be an understatement. Almost as soon as Mayor Jean Quan was inaugurated in January, she and then-City Attorney John Russo began clashing, privately and then publicly, about Quan's decision to bring Oakland lawyer Dan Siegel to be her unpaid legal adviser. And at the same time, Russo also locked horns with various city councilmembers over a number of issues, particularly his refusal to represent the council as it went forward with its controversial plan to tax and regulate large-scale medical pot farms. Councilwoman Desley Brooks publicly admonished Russo for failing to attend the council's closed-door sessions, and for much of the early spring, it seemed like stories about the council and its increasingly strained relationship with its official legal representative dominated City Hall. In May, all those fissures finally found a breaking point when Russo officially announced his resignation to become Alameda's City Manager, leaving a vacancy in one of the most high-profile city positions.
But last week, some closure was reached — for now, at least — when acting City Attorney Barbara Parker was officially named to serve out the remainder of Russo's term, which expires in January 2013. Parker — who's been working in the city attorney's office for more than twenty years, including ten years as its chief assistant city attorney — is said to have friendly working relationships with the mayor and council, and was recommended for the job by Russo. Councilwoman Libby Schaaf praised her from the dais, calling the Harvard Law grad "cool as a cucumber." And Parker also appears to enjoy community backing: At the meeting, more than thirty speakers signed up for public comment to voice their support, and the chambers were filled with folks wearing neon "I support BJP" stickers.
Ultimately, Parker was appointed with a 5-3 vote, with councilmembers Ignacio de La Fuente, Desley Brooks, and Jane Brunner voting against. In a recent interview with the Express, Brunner confirmed that she plans to seek the job in next November's election.
Special Election and Parcel Tax Measure Are a Go
At the same meeting, we got another (partial) resolution to a long-simmering civic fight — that over Mayor Quan's proposed special election and parcel tax. The council voted to float an $80-a-year-per-house parcel tax measure on a mail-only special election ballot in November.
Both the parcel tax and the election itself have been the source of controversy in the city for months now: Quan has been pushing for the parcel tax — which would be levied for five years and which would bring in an estimated $11 million a year for police training and services like libraries — since shortly after her inauguration as mayor, painting it as a last-ditch effort to make up vital funds in the face of a potentially crippling budget deficit. The parcel tax vote was originally proposed — and approved by the council — for a special election this June, but that was canned after lawmakers on the state level blocked a California-wide election. In April, Quan's effort to put the parcel tax measure before voters in a special July election was again stymied when some councilmembers raised questions about whether Quan had adequately complied with city sunshine laws in notifying the public. During this time, opponents both within and outside of the council argued that the tax was little more than a band-aid measure, and that the council and mayor hadn't done enough to pursue other revenue-raising options. But now that the city has made up the bulk of its deficit, largely by negotiating deals with its public-employees unions and by agreeing to sell the Henry J. Kaiser Center, Quan appears to be banking on the idea that public opinion has changed. All councilmembers except for De La Fuente, who has staunchly opposed the parcel tax, voted to place it on the ballot.
Brown Signs Dream Act
Governor Jerry Brown signed the Dream Act into law, thereby allowing state college students who entered the United States illegally but who graduated from state high schools to become eligible for private scholarships. The (more controversial) other half of the bill, which would allow them to receive public money, a much larger pool, is still languishing in the legislature, but Brown has indicated that he is inclined to support it, and proponents of the act are apparently taking the passage of the first half to be a positive sign.
Unrelated to Parker's appointment, a ballot measure that would ask voters to change Oakland's charter to make the position of city attorney an appointed, rather than an elected, position passed with the support of all councilmembers except Brunner and De La Fuente — despite vociferous opposition during public comment .... Opponents of the Oakland Zoo expansion filed a lawsuit against the zoo for failing to perform an Environmental Impact Review before moving forward with plans to expand into upper Knowland Park, currently home to a number of native and rare plants and animals, including the endangered Alameda whipsnake. If the lawsuit is successful, it could delay or further alter the expansion plans .... The family of Derrick Jones, the unarmed East Oakland barber who was shot and killed by Oakland cops in November, has filed a $10 million civil rights suit against the city. Though Alameda County prosecutors have previously ruled that officers Eriberto Perez-Angeles and Omar Daza-Quiroz broke no laws in shooting Jones, the suit, filed in federal court, argues that they used excessive force .... In yet another product of the city council meeting, Oakland will double its number of licensed medical cannabis dispensaries from four to eight .... A controversial proposal to give local governments the authority to tax their residents is being tabled until 2012; interestingly enough, this comes just as a new poll indicates Californians would be amenable to voter-approved local taxes on goods like cigarettes, liquor, and soda.