Oakland City Hall. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oaklanders struggling with wage theft, unsafe housing conditions, and polluted neighborhoods will soon have a more powerful ally in their corner: the City Attorney.

On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to approve an ordinance expanding the City Attorney’s powers, enabling the office to enforce all of Oakland’s municipal laws. Oakland has over 164 ordinances, but the city does not have clear authority to enforce over half of them, according to Scott Hugo, a housing justice lawyer who works in the City Attorney’s Office. In other cases, the City Attorney can enforce municipal laws, but its options are limited.

The lack of clear authority to enforce some local laws has forced the City Attorney to sometimes rely on state laws to address wrongdoing. For example, in 2018 a construction and demolition debris company repeatedly violated state and local laws by storing waste in West Oakland’s Clawson neighborhood, a historically Black community already burdened by pollution. According to the City Attorney, Oakland was able to secure an injunction against the company, but it had to rely on a state public nuisance law instead of city laws.

“The city is potentially missing remedies that may be critical to protecting Oakland residents’ rights,” Hugo said last Tuesday during a Community and Economic Development Committee meeting. The committee unanimously approved the ordinance and moved it to the consent agenda for today’s council meeting, which is normally approved by the council without discussion.

As the name suggests, Oakland’s City Attorney is the city’s legal counsel. The office is led by an attorney—currently Barbara Parker—who is elected and therefore independent from the mayor and City Council. The city attorney gives legal advice to Oakland officials, including City Council, staff, and most of the city’s boards and commissions. It’s also responsible for drafting legislation, resolutions, and contracts. And the City Attorney can pursue litigation on behalf of the city and its residents. In recent years, the City Attorney has sued landlords who illegally evicted tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic and banks that practiced racially discriminatory lending practices.

Oakland’s lack of clear authority to enforce certain laws make it an outlier compared to other big California cities. San Jose, San Diego, and Los Angeles all allow their city attorneys to enforce any violation of their municipal codes. They can also secure injunctions and collect civil penalties. Unlike San Francisco County and Santa Clara County, Oakland can’t use California’s Unfair Competition Law, which lets local governments address violations of almost any law. The unfair competition statute can only be exercised by governments that oversee a population of at least 750,000, and Oakland is well below the threshold.  

In recent years, Oakland officials have identified the City Attorney’s Office as a critical part of the strategy to improve equity for city residents. A 2018 city report gave Oakland a citywide equity score of 33.5 out of 100, reflecting a significant need for improvement. In 2022, the City Council declared racism a public health crisis and said the City Attorney’s Office has a key role to play in advancing racial equity. 

Chief Assistant City Attorney Maria Bee said the office realized it needed greater enforcement capabilities after it started litigating major civil rights and housing cases over the last few years.

“We realized we needed to have the ability to enforce all of our local laws so we could serve justice to our residents,” Bee told The Oaklandside.

Even without clear authority over many laws, the City Attorney’s Office has played a critical role in cracking down on rulebreakers and securing compensation for wronged communities. 

Over the past five years, City Attorney Barbara Parker has secured over $48 million for Oakland and its residents through settlements and awards, according to a June report from her office. For example, in 2019, the City Attorney filed a tenant protection lawsuit against the owners of over 60 properties in Oakland. According to the report, the units—which were primarily rented out to low-income immigrants—had “imminent fire risks.” Families with young children were living in rooms without carbon monoxide or smoke detectors. The city won its trial against the owners in 2021 with the court ordering the landlord to pay $3.9 million in penalties.

The ordinance also specifies that Oakland City Attorney is one of the departments tasked with advancing–and enforcing–equity for marginalized communities. An explicit goal of the statute is to address existing inequities without worsening them. 

According to Parker’s report, the City Attorney can already enforce the Minimum Wage and Sick Leave ordinance, which contains important rules about how employers should treat their workers. The report notes the importance of being able to pursue restitution for low-wage workers. As an example, the report notes that in 2018, the Los Angeles City Attorney won $1 million in restitution for employees of two car wash companies who were victims of wage theft. This financial compensation was huge for the low-income migrant workers, some of whom had been earning $4.50 an hour. Under the proposed ordinance in Oakland, the City Attorney would be able to recover civil penalties of up to $2,500 per violation for each day the violation was not corrected.

According to the report, Oakland is one of the few jurisdictions with an Equal Benefits Ordinance, which requires companies that contract with the city to provide equal benefits to employees who are in domestic partnerships. But the law is currently set up in a way that doesn’t allow for the City Attorney to enforce it. Similarly, Oakland has a local ordinance that shields people from discrimination for their sexual orientation in the context of employment, real estate transactions, business dealings, and access to city services and facilities. But there’s no enforcement provision for the City Attorney. The report notes this is an especially glaring gap given the rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in other parts of the country.

Darlene Flynn, director of Oakland’s Race and Equity Department, gave the ordinance a ringing endorsement at last week’s meeting.

“I want you to know that my presence here is a signal about how enthusiastic I am about this work that was done by the City Attorney’s Office,” Flynn said. She added that the office’s racial equity impact analysis is probably the most rigorous one ever produced internally by the city.  

The ordinance also received support from the Public Rights Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps governments enforce civil rights and economic and environmental justice laws. Legal Director Josh Rosenthal said the ordinance “would actually make the City of Oakland a leader in pursuing equitable enforcement” by expanding its powers and creating standards for measuring its work.   

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the new ordinance would allow the City Attorney to enforce the Minimum Wage and Sick Leave ordinance. The city can already enforce this law; the new ordinance provides stronger possible remedies.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.