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Russo, at Odds with Quan, May Resign as Oakland City Attorney

Disagreements over pot farm legislation, gang injunctions have contributed to discontent

Oakland City Attorney John Russo has told friends and other city officials that he is considering stepping down, possibly as early as April, The Bay Citizen has learned.

Russo’s resignation would be another destabilizing force for the administration of Mayor Jean Quan, who earlier this month persuaded police Chief Anthony Batts to stay in Oakland after he voiced deep misgivings about the city’s political leadership.

Russo’s disenchantment stems in part from deep disagreements with Quan and members of the City Council over the city’s efforts to develop large-scale pot farms to raise revenue, according to two sources who have spoken with him at length about the issue.

Russo refused to continue representing the city on the issue after the U.S. Department of Justice questioned the legality of the pot initiative last month.

In addition, Russo has clashed publicly with Quan over a gang injunction that his office is seeking to institute on Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Quan has openly questioned the effectiveness of the injunction, which Russo and police officials believe is critical for lowering crime in the Fruitvale.

On Tuesday, Alex Katz, a spokesman for Russo, said the city attorney “has no immediate plans to resign,” but declined to elaborate.

Russo — who lost a bid against Sandré Swanson for State Assembly in 2006 — is eyeing that seat again for the 2012 election, according to several people familiar with his thinking. Swanson is termed out and exploring a run for the state Senate, leaving an open field in the 16th Assembly District, which covers Alameda, Oakland and Piedmont.

Russo became the first elected city attorney in Oakland in 2000. His current term runs until 2012.

One top Bay Area political consultant said Russo approached him about running for Swanson’s seat within the past six months.

Jim Ross, another consultant, said he has not spoken with Russo about his plans but said he would be in a position to run for Swanson’s seat if he resigns soon.

“If he quits in April, takes a break, then begins fundraising and immediately positions himself as the front runner, that’s not a bad timeline,” Ross said.

The public battles with the mayor and City Council have culminated in some council members calling for a public discussion of the role of the city attorney, said Jane Brunner, a City Council member who has been at odds with Russo. Brunner is also rumored to be considering a run for city attorney.

Brunner faulted Russo for leaking legal memos on both the gang injunction and the pot legislation to the press before consulting with city leaders. “When there’s a threat of the suit, your obligation is to discuss it with your client first,” said Brunner.

Asked about Russo’s potential departure, Brunner said: “I don't think he's very happy and I don't think he works very well with us. If he wants to leave, I think that’s an option he should take.”

Russo declined a request for an interview, but it is apparent the city’s ambitious plans to permit huge pot farms have turned into a wedge. In the fall, Russo sent a memo to the City Council that the Department of Justice was concerned about the legislation. Soon after, city leaders scrapped the ordinance.

City Council member Desley Brooks has since rewritten the legislation and believes that it is now in compliance with federal law. But after receiving the warning letter from the Department of Justice, Russo told the council he would no longer represent the city on the pot farm issue.

Quan and Russo have engaged in an ongoing battle over gang injunctions. At a press conference last month, Quan questioned the effectiveness of the injunctions, which essentially act as restraining orders against alleged gang members. Quan called the injunctions “Russo’s project,” KTVU reported.

Russo has consistently argued that the injunctions are needed to fight crime. He has accused Quan’s legal advisor, Dan Siegel, of having a conflict of interest on the issue. Siegel’s firm — where City Council member Brunner is a partner — is representing a gang member who is challenging the injunction.

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