Most city attorneys in California are appointed, not elected, and their position typically isn’t a prominent one. City attorneys work mostly behind the scenes, vetting contracts, giving legal advice to mayors, or defending the city in court. But Oakland is one of 10 California cities where voters get to elect their city attorney, making the job here much more independent and powerful.
For the past nine years, Barabara Parker, a seasoned lawyer who passed the bar in 1976, has occupied the post. She was first appointed by John Russo, who resigned as City Attorney in 2011. Parker defeated Jane Brunner in the 2012 election, and has kept a relatively low profile since then. Parker usually sends a deputy to council meetings and rarely holds press conferences or makes other public appearances.
But she has elevated the role of the City Attorney’s Office in several respects. Most notably, she has co-sponsored housing legislation and has pursued aggressive complaints against abusive landlords. She has also made a point of having Oakland join other cities in major lawsuits against multi-billion dollar chemical companies and banks on behalf of Oakland residents.
Oakland elects its city attorney every four years. In 2016, Parker faced no opposition. But this year, Eli Ferran, a young attorney who worked under Parker in the City Attorney’s Office for twelve years, is challenging his former boss. Ferran has some criticisms about Parker’s record, and his campaign has been aided by the fact that Parker has made some powerful enemies.
The Oaklandside interviewed Ferran and Parker and reviewed their records.
Elias Jesus Ferran
Ferran grew up in New Orleans, where both his parents were employed by the military. He said his father, who died in 1988, and his mother, who still lives in Louisiana, instilled in him an ethic of public service. Growing up, he attended Catholic schools and enrolled in the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, but the campus was shut down by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ferran temporarily relocated to California, where he attended the University of San Francisco.
After graduating with a law degree, Ferran decided to stay in the Bay Area. He passed the bar exam and got a job with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office prosecuting quality-of-life crimes, including charges like public intoxication or complaints about people selling items on the sidewalk without permits. Ferran said then-District Attorney Kamala Harris’s approach at the time was to not aggressively go after these kinds of petty infractions.
“The core issue isn’t the drinking,” Ferran said about a typical public intoxication case. “It may have been that they had a drinking problem, so instead of making them pay a $100 fine, we would maybe make them go to Alcoholics Anonymous classes, and then they would show [proof of] that and they wouldn’t have to pay the fine.”
In 2008, Ferran took a job with the Oakland City Attorney’s Office. He is married to Pamela Ferran, a staffer for District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor, and lives in East Oakland.
A cockfighting operation Ferran helped the city shut down in 2009 ended up being one of the largest animal welfare busts in Oakland, resulting in the arrest of 69 people and the euthanizing of over 100 birds that were forced to fight to the death in a warehouse before crowds of gamblers.
The City Council defunded Ferran’s position after about two years due to the Great Recession, and he was transferred into a similar role helping crack down on bars and liquor stores that were subjects of complaints, or were suspected of contributing to higher rates of crime in the surrounding neighborhood. He spent a lot of time attending Oakland’s various Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings listening to residents’ complaints about problems like illegal dumping, blight, and drug sales. He closely coordinated with the police in this role.
“I would go to those [meetings] and listen to people’s problems and try to solve them,” said Ferran. “The best thing in the world is when you see these people and you come back with a solution.”
His legal toolkit included anti-nuisance and code enforcement laws, and he kept a close watch on hotels where neighbors lodged complaints claiming that sex workers, drug dealers, and others were illegally operating out of rooms. At one W. MacArthur Blvd. hotel, Ferran worked closely with OPD and forced the owners to give police the right to review the hotel’s guest roster and live access to its security cameras. Ferran also worked with OPD and the planning department to make sure that Egbert Souse’s—a Piedmont Avenue bar where there were three shootings in 2013—hired security guards and shut down early on weekends. (Egbert Souse’s was eventually closed and became The Lodge.) He was also responsible for reviewing applications and renewals for liquor stores.
Another of Ferran’s responsibilities was carrying out nuisance evictions against renters accused of engaging in violent crime, possessing firearms or ammunition, engaging in sex work, and other “nuisance activities.” Ferran described how the program worked in a 2014 presentation to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
“We intend to use this ordinance as a scalpel to abate particular nuisances, so if one individual at a location is committing a nuisance, we want that one person evicted—not everyone at that location,” said Ferran at the time.
Ferran stayed in this role until June of this year, when he quit. He was not promoted to a supervisory role during his time in the City Attorney’s Office. Shortly after leaving, he filed papers to run for City Attorney. He said in an interview that he wasn’t aware Parker intended to run for reelection, but that he takes issue with how she has run the City Attorney’s Office. He feels the office is poorly managed, and that he would focus on raising the morale of the deputy attorneys who work there. “A lot of people feel there needs to be change,” said Ferran.
He also said the office can do more to help clean up Oakland’s streets. “We have big gaps regarding blight and illegal dumping. There were months this year when no dumping was being picked up,” Ferran said. He believes the city attorney’s staff was too slow to approve new abatement contracts to clean up trash piles, graffiti, and other blight.
Ferran says contracts are a major problem in the city. He pointed to two contracts where he believes the city attorney’s staff made major mistakes that have cost Oakland millions.
In one case, the city’s curbside recycling provider, California Waste Solutions, was able to negotiate a contract that included what the city later called a “draftsman’s error” by leaving out a specific rate for the service of collecting and emptying bins. The omission allowed CWS to charge apartment owners higher rates for services. The city sued CWS in 2017, and the matter is still tied up in court while a related ethics investigation looks into allegations that CWS’s owners made illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates.
In another instance, city officials signed a contract with a company owned by local developer Phil Tagami for construction of a bulk commodity export terminal in West Oakland. In 2015, news that Tagami was trying to lure a coal company to ship fossil fuels through the still-unbuilt facility led the City Council to issue a coal ban. But Tagami’s contract with the city never specifically banned coal, one of several factors that have kept his project alive and cost Oakland millions in attorneys’ fees as it fights the project in court.
“If you didn’t want coal, you could have put ‘no coal’ in the contract,” said Ferran.
Asked what he would do about the city’s effort to ban coal if elected, Ferran said he’d solicit more input. “Is this something we should settle? Is this something we should proceed forward with? You want to hear from your subject matter experts and convey that to the City Council.”
Overall, Ferran believes the city attorney shouldn’t play a major role in making policy. When asked about Parker’s reputation for working closely with councilmembers to create legislation—Parker and Kalb drafted Oakland’s 2014 Tenant Protection Ordinance and recent updates to the law approved earlier this year—Ferran said, “I think it’s the role of the council to be implementing ordinances and resolutions and everything else. The city attorney should be signing off on formal legality and aggressively enforcing it.”
Ferran added that he thinks the city attorney should seek council “ratification” of tenant protection lawsuits and other major litigation before filing them in court. Ferran also said he feels that Parker has come to the aid of tenants relatively late during the pandemic.
“She’s been in office nine years, and it took COVID and a challenger in order for her to bring up these tenants’ issues,” he said. (We fact-check this claim below.) “So that’s not really a defender of anybody’s rights.”
Barbara Jean Parker
It’s not true that Parker started filing lawsuits against bad landlords only after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Parker drafted the Tenant Protection Ordinance with Councilmember Dan Kalb in 2014. Since then, the City Attorney’s Office has filed multiple tenant protection lawsuits, and Parker has made extra effort to publicize them.
In 2015, Parker’s office filed its first TPO lawsuit against the owner of the Empyrean Towers, a 90-unit apartment building in downtown Oakland that had fallen into disrepair. She secured an injunction requiring safety improvements and later, after the owner declared bankruptcy, Parker’s office stepped in to have the building sold to an affordable housing developer.
In 2016, her office filed an anti-harassment lawsuit against a real estate investor who bought a building near Chinatown and demolished bathrooms and a shared kitchen used by immigrant Chinese families who lived there. That same year, Parker’s staff filed another lawsuit against the owners of a 30-unit apartment building in Fruitvale where tenants were forced to live with vermin, busted plumbing and no hot water, broken locks, peeling lead paint, and other hazards. In 2017, Parker filed another TPO lawsuit, this time against a landlord who demolished a tenant’s home and erected a giant Trump billboard on the property.
In April, a Maxwell Park landlord made a fake “red tag,” intended to look like official ones posted by the city to condemn buildings and require inhabitants to move out. The landlord taped the fake red tag to their property and evicted the tenants living in the home by paying a moving company to take away their belongings. In May, Parker’s office sued the landlords.
“We’re hoping by virtue of our press releases and by publicizing these lawsuits, that people who want to engage in this kind of activity will see Oakland is not the place to come,” Parker said. “You won’t get away with this with impunity, and maybe it’ll be a disincentive.”
Earlier this month, the National Association of Realtors paid for $105,000 in ads to support Ferran’s campaign. In her own ads, Parker has portrayed the realtors’ expenditure as a signal that her work to protect Oakland tenants has upset landlords and brokers.
Like Ferran, Parker said a love of public service was instilled in her as a child. Parker’s mother was a sharecropper and her father was a farmer in rural Jim Crow Arkansas. They migrated to Seattle and took on new, higher-paying jobs. Parker was raised in Seattle, and although her childhood there was free of the pervasive racial terrorism of the deep South, she still experienced discrimination. “They told all four of us kids we needed to do something in our lives to improve the conditions of Black people,” she said about her parents.
Parker excelled in school and was among a handful of Black women admitted to Harvard Law School in the 1970s. After working briefly as a corporate attorney, she was employed as a federal prosecutor in the San Francisco office of the United States Attorney. She began working for Oakland in 1991 as a deputy attorney. She served on the State Judicial Council in the early 2000s, helping govern California courts. Parker has a daughter who she raised as a single mother. She lives east of Lake Merritt in the Haddon Hill neighborhood.
She said working to defend tenants against landlord harassment is “near and dear” to her heart. “The goal is to protect Oakland residents and stem the exodus from the city of a lot of people of color, and stem the tide of homelessness. In that respect, it’s a racial justice and equity issue.”
In her interview with The Oaklandside, Parker made a point of spelling out the numerous roles of the city attorney, an important office that she says isn’t well understood by the general public. First and foremost, she said, the city attorney advises the City Council, the mayor, and city administration on existing law. This advice, she said, is protected by attorney-client privilege, which means the city attorney cannot publicly disclose her office’s advice in many cases.
“Often I’m in a difficult spot,” Parker said. “Someone might say something publicly that isn’t correct, but I can’t speak about it.”
The city attorney also vets contracts and legislation to make sure it conforms with the law, which Parker described as an “awesome duty” because of the risks and rewards of this work. And the city attorney represents Oakland in court if the city is sued, or when the city files its own lawsuits. “We defend, sue, advise,” Parker summed.
Parker said she believes the city attorney’s staff should play an active role in shaping policies.
“I worked on medical cannabis back in the 1990s,” Parker said. “I came up with the idea of making it the lowest law enforcement policy, to have the police not focus on it.” In 2004, voters approved Measure Z, which also made non-medical cannabis use and possession a far lower priority for the Oakland police.
More recently, Parker said she and her staff worked closely with councilmembers to craft the right to recall jobs ordinance and emergency sick leave law, which both passed.
Asked about Ferran’s criticisms that her office made mistakes on the CWS recycling contract and the Oakland coal terminal contract, Parker said her attorneys weren’t to blame; expert consultants and the city’s economic development staff were responsible for the substance of the contract, including outlining what types of commodities could be shipped through the facility.
“I think we have brilliant attorneys, but we’re not experts in the coal industry,” she said. “It should have been addressed by the city’s experts and consultants in that field.” Parker also said her attorneys wouldn’t have known the rates for different services, and this should have been caught by staff in other departments.
As for the coal lawsuit, Parker says that fight isn’t over. Although a federal judge ruled that the city violated its contract with Tagami’s company, and the city’s appeal of this ruling was rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, Parker said the city still has the option of holding new public hearings and passing another resolution to ban coal at the West Oakland project site. In the meantime, a separate lawsuit between the city and Tagami’s company is winding its way through state courts.
Parker said she thinks the difference between her and Ferran is “startling” in terms of qualifications and abilities, and that Oaklanders need an experienced attorney right now.
“As we’re being besieged by the havoc of the COVID epidemic, this is a time we need a level-headed, fact-based commitment to the people of Oakland,” said Parker. “It requires someone with the long-term experience and expertise that I bring to the job, and the backbone and spine I have.”
Who’s backing the candidates?
Parker is endorsed by the Oakland Tenants Union and Eviction Defense Center Executive Director Anne Omura, Mayor Libby Schaaf, the Oakland firefighters union, West Oakland environmental leader Margaret Gordon and the Sierra Club, and councilmembers Dan Kalb, Sheng Thao, Nikki Fortunato Bas, and Larry Reid, among others.
Ferran is endorsed by the union SEIU 1021, which represents over 1,000 city employees. He’s also backed by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, former mayor Jean Quan, the Building Trades and Construction Council of Alameda County, the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and the Coalition for Police Accountability.
Leaving aside the National Realtors Association’s independent expenditure of $105,000 in support of Ferran, he has managed to raise about $90,000 for his own campaign committee. Building trades unions are among the largest contributors to Ferran’s committee. He’s also received funding from the Chamber of Commerce and former City Councilmembers Abel Guillen and Ignacio De La Fuente, who currently works as a lobbyist. And Ferran personally gave his campaign $20,000.
Parker has reported raising $105,000 this year to run for reelection. No independent committees have reported raising money to support her. Her largest contributions come mainly from other attorneys who work for Alameda County or in private practice, but some of her contributors include senior attorneys and division leaders in her office who have also publicly endorsed her.