John Russo Considers Quitting

Oakland's city attorney has thought about resigning his post and now offers himself as a mediator for $400 an hour.

Oakland City Attorney John Russo admitted last week in an interview with the Express that he has considered resigning from office. Russo has been embroiled in open feuds with Mayor Jean Quan and some members of the city council. However, Oakland’s elected city attorney adamantly denied a published report that he has been eyeing a run for state Assembly. He said flatly that he will not run. But he acknowledged that he does have at least one other job in mind at some point in the future. In fact, last year he joined a legal mediation service company and has been advertising himself as a mediator to be hired at $400 an hour.

Russo is a member of ADR Services, a firm that provides private, alternative dispute resolution mediation for businesses and the legal community. The company has offices in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Russo is a member of the firm’s Northern California branch, and is the branch’s only city attorney/mediator. In fact, he’s the only active lawyer in the branch, according to ADR’s web site. All of the other attorneys working for the branch are retired. The branch also features numerous retired judges.

Russo said he joined ADR because he realizes that at some point he will no longer be Oakland’s city attorney. “I want to do it in the future,” he said of mediation, “and it’s good to have your name out there.” However, Russo said he has not yet been hired as a mediator and has not received any compensation from ADR. He also said that if he does take mediation gigs while he’s still Oakland’s city attorney, he will not be involved in cases in which one or both of the parties is from Oakland or does business in the city. He also said that he will not allow mediation to interfere with his job as city attorney and would only take jobs when the city council was out of session. He said he’s been advertising his services mostly in Southern California to avoid conflicts. Officials for ADR Services did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Under Oakland’s city charter, only the mayor is prohibited from holding down a second job. The city attorney, by contrast, is legally allowed to moonlight, even though it’s a full-time position. It’s a somewhat curious rule, considering that Quan makes substantially less pay than Russo even though her job is arguably more difficult. Quan recently voluntarily cut her own pay by 25 percent, and now makes $137,000 a year compared with Russo’s $200,000 annual salary.

But even if Russo has not yet done any mediation work, his decision to join ADR while he’s still Oakland’s city attorney is unusual, and it provides more evidence that he’s been thinking seriously about moving on. He’s also has been criticized recently for allegedly not being completely into his job. Councilwoman Desley Brooks called him out publicly for not attending any closed council sessions last year. Closed sessions are where the council confers with the city attorney over pressing legal matters.

Russo admitted that he has been thinking about resigning. “I’ve been thinking that this may not be a good fit. …There’s no question that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my future.”

He added: “I won’t bullshit you. The way things are going at City Hall, it’s very clear we’re struggling,” he said. “Suffice it to say that I don’t see eye-to-eye with several leaders in City Hall. Not all of them, but several of them.”

Russo has been fighting recently with Quan and some council members. He was particularly angry with the mayor’s decision to hire her longtime friend, Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, to be her unpaid legal advisor. Russo unsuccessfully sought to have members of Siegel’s firm disqualified from the city’s gang injunction case over alleged conflicts of interest. The city attorney also has bristled at the council’s close scrutiny of his office’s budget. And he recently refused to represent the council in its efforts to hammer out a plan to permit, tax, and regulate large medical cannabis grows, prompting the council to hire an outside firm. In an interview, Russo also accused council members of publicly misrepresenting his legal advice, although he declined to give specifics, citing attorney-client privilege.

Russo also fired back at allegations that he hasn’t given his job his full attention. He pointed to recent efforts by his office to shut down motels that cater to prostitution, along with attempts to obtain gang injunctions. “Anyone who’s saying that I’m not working my ass off doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Russo said.

If Russo does quit, the council has the power to appoint an interim city attorney to serve out the remainder of his term, which expires in 2012. However, Russo said he has no immediate plans to resign, and people who know him say they don’t think he will — unless he lands a high-paying job elsewhere.

Three-Dot Roundup

Chris Butler, a private investigator whose Concord agency was the subject of an Express 2007 cover story, “The Honeytrappers,” was arrested on multiple charges of felony drug dealing along with his friend, Norman Wielsch, a commander of the Central Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team. Butler and Wielsch face as many of 25 felony offenses. … The state Assembly refused to go along with several of the deep cuts proposed by Governor Jerry Brown for health and medical services for the poor and disabled. … The Alameda City Council, led by Mayor Marie Gilmore and Vice Mayor Rob Bonta, began interviewing candidates for its open city manager’s position. … And a federal appellate court ruled that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission‘s habit of spending far more money on rail projects that serve mostly white suburbanites than on inner-city bus service is not racially discriminatory.


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