Oakland City Attorney John Russo acknowledged in an interview today that he has considered resigning from office, although he said he has no immediate plans to do so. He also adamantly denied a published report that he's thinking about running for state Assembly. He said flatly that he will not. 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 (Alternative Dispute Resolution), a firm that provides private mediation for businesses and the legal community and 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." But Russo said he has not yet been hired as a mediator and has not receieved 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 to 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 Oakland City Council was out of session. He said he's been advertising his services mostly in Southern California to avoid conflicts with his job. Officials for ADR Services did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment for this post.
Under the Oakland 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 his position is considered full-time. It’s a somewhat curious rule, considering the fact that Oakland Mayor Jean 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 to 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 come under intense criticism recently for allegedly not being completely into his Oakland job. Councilwoman Desley Brooks called him out publicly for not attending a single City Council closed-door session in the past six months. Closed sessions are where the city council confers with the city attorney over pressing legal matters.
Russo admitted that he has been thinking about resigning. "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 recently embroiled in open public feuds with Quan and city 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. He unsuccessfully sought to have members of Siegel’s firm disqualified from a legal case over alleged conflicts of interest. He has bristled at the council's close scrutiny of his office’s budget. And he recently publicly 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. Today, Russo also accused city councilmembers 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 put his full attention into the city attorney's job. He pointed to recent efforts by his office to shut down prostitute-infested motels in the city, along with attempts to obtain gang injunctions. "Anyone who's saying that I'm not working my ass off," Russo said, "doesn't know what he's talking about."
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. "I've been thinking that this may not be a good fit," Russo said. "There's no question that I've been giving a lot of thought to my future."
However, people who know Russo say they don't think he'll resign — unless he lands a high-paying job elsewhere. They note that he has family obligations and that the mediation job won't be able to replace his current salary.