OAKLAND -- The life of the city attorney is a tumultuous one in Oakland. In the last year, the man who held the office for a decade ignited a fiery public debate over gang injunctions, refused to advise the City Council on its plan to license medicinal pot farms and quit after a bitter public feud with the mayor.
So how does Barbara Parker, who was appointed the new city attorney in July, want to run things as the city's top lawyer? How will things change?
The word she uses over and over is collaboration.
Parker is a 20-year veteran of the city attorney's office, so last year's fireworks are not news to her. But where her predecessor, former Councilmember John Russo, was known for a strident and confrontational style, Parker, a career attorney rather than a politician, is known for speaking in a measured, professorial tone even when confronted with anger or insult.
It's about as good a starting point as she could hope for. Russo was popular with Oakland voters, winning three terms, but his relationships with the City Council and Mayor Jean Quan were prickly and sometimes openly hostile. Having worked as Russo's second-in-command could have proved an impediment to building her own smooth working relationships inside city hall, but even council members who voted against her appointment are playing nice.
"I haven't had anything but positive responses so far," Parker said. Of course, the council has been in recess since her appointment -- things could get hairier when they resume meetings Sept. 13.
But of the three council members who voted against Parker's appointment, none chose to speak a word against her in interviews for this story.
"I had my reasons for not voting for Barbara, but I told her before I voted that I'm willing to be found wrong," said Desley Brooks, who represents the Eastmont and Seminary districts.
Brooks was joined in her "no" vote by Ignacio De La Fuente, representing Glenview and Fruitvale, who said he respects Parker but would have rather seen a campaign for the position instead of an appointment. Jane Brunner, representing North Oakland, who is building a campaign to run for the job herself, did not return phone calls last week asking for comment.
Quan had the most difficult public relationship with Russo, who was scathingly critical of the mayor in the press, sometimes without having spoken directly with her.
"Barbara is very professional, so I don't expect her to do that," Quan said. "But she's going to have to bridge a gap. I've had a fairly decent relationship with Barbara, except when she was carrying John's water."
Parker said she is excited about the taking the lead in the city attorney's office and hopes to tackle Oakland's pressing issues, like public safety, in concert with her colleagues and her community.
The most controversial issue on her plate is a pair of gang injunctions -- one already in effect in North Oakland and another making its way through the courts, which names 40 accused members of the Norteños gang believed active in the Fruitvale district.
"We are in a crisis with the violence in this city," Parker said. She emphasized that the injunctions are narrowly tailored to the individuals named in them and that they are just one of many tools needed to combat the crime problem.
The council voted in May to direct the city attorney to finish work on the Fruitvale case, and "we are proceeding with great intensity" to make that happen, Parker said. The case returns to court in late September and attorneys for the defendants are asking for mediation, which Parker is not ruling out.
"The guiding principle of (the Fruitvale injunction) is to reduce violence committed both by and against members of the Norteños gang in Oakland," Parker said. "We're willing to consider options -- including some form of mediation -- if they align with this principle.
"As far as we're aware," she added, "no new crimes have been committed by any of the named defendants in the North Oakland zone in the 14 months since the court ordered an injunction."
Beyond that, she said, "We plan to discuss options and next steps with the city council when it returns from the summer break."
The council's vote in May also required an evaluation of the injunctions before any new ones are considered, although no clear plans emerged for such a study. But Council President Larry Reid, representing Elmhurst and East Oakland, recently called for a third injunction in the wake of several horrific crimes in and near his district, and he is working with De La Fuente on a proposal for youth curfews.
"We're looking into what other options are out there," Parker said, but she added that it's too early to say what other approaches are on the horizon.
"Police are important, but they're just one part of it," Parker said, describing what she's planning as a holistic approach to public safety.
Other top priorities
A major hole she hopes to fill is code enforcement: cleaning up blight, targeting illegal dumping and going after the many hotels on and around International Boulevard that "deal in human trafficking and prostitution."
Once upon a time, Parker says, there was a team of five attorneys in her office dedicated to code enforcement, which was slowly eliminated in a series of layoffs over the years. One of her plans is to reassemble that team, to the extent possible with her reduced staff.
Another major focus under Parker will be protecting the city from lawsuits, she said.
The city paid out $8.74 million to settle lawsuits in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, according to city reports. That was almost $3 million more than in the previous year, those reports show, and Parker said that trend needs to be halted and reversed. More than half those payouts were related to police issues, especially officer-involved shootings, and Parker said she hopes to work with the police on ways to tackle that problem as well.
Parker is also reversing Russo's February decision to stop advising the City Council about its plan to license and regulate industrial-scale medicinal pot farms. That plan appears to be on ice for now -- the council voted to postpone the issue in July and is instead focusing on increasing the number of dispensaries, and Parker says she wants to stay involved.
"Oakland is a very cutting edge, progressive city. We have an enlightened council," she said. "We all know this (state medicinal marijuana law) violates federal law," Parker said, and federal authorities have made it clear they're paying attention. "But their concern right now is cultivation. They haven't been coming after cities with dispensaries. The city will have to consider how to move forward, given that the attorney general is concerned."
Parker said she wants to stay involved with all the city's legal dealings, whether she agrees with council decisions or not. But she's not weighing in on a ballot proposal that would revert her job to an appointed position, rather than elected one.
"I would be honored to serve as an appointed or elected city attorney," she said. "But I do plan to run in 2012 if the seat remains elected."
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.