Reprinted with Permission
-Bolded for emphasis by Parkin for City Attorney
James Johnson Does Not Have The Experience To Serve In This Critical Post
By GEORGE ECONOMIDES Publisher
Many in the community acknowledge that the most important decision faced by local voters in this election cycle is who shall serve as the city attorney for Long Beach. Providing the correct legal advice to elected officials and staff is absolutely essential for a smooth city operation. The wrong advice could prove costly.
That’s why three Business Journal staffers spent an hour-plus with Charles Parkin, the current city attorney appointed last year to fill the unexpired term of former City Attorney Bob Shannon, and with James Johnson, current 7th District councilman, who wants the job.
Being city attorney is not like running for city council. Experience does matter. The ability to manage other attorneys and related staff does matter. Being knowledgeable about, and having hands-on involvement in, a wide range of city department functions – such as tidelands, the port, the water department – does matter. Being independent does matter. Every day, legal issues flood the office of the city attorney. It’s an all-encompassing job that requires a professional’s professional. On-the-job training is simply not acceptable.
That’s a large part of why Charles Parkin should be elected Long Beach City Attorney. He has 15 years of experience in the city attorney’s office, with specific knowledge and personal involvement in every aspect of the operation. Johnson has been teaching law at Long Beach State for the past year or so, with very little time on his resume of working for a law firm. In fact, Johnson has so little legal experience that any of the other 19 attorneys working in the city attorney’s office is more qualified than Johnson to run the office. (As an aside, all 19 attorneys have endorsed Parkin – a very powerful statement of who they trust to do the job.)
For the interviews, the Business Journal staff came prepared with two pages of questions, gleaned from conversations with several attorneys – retired and currently practicing. We read the City Charter Section 600 (Department of Law). We read Article 16 of the California Constitution (Public Finance). We read about the difference between a Charter City and a General Law City. We reexamined the city’s organizational chart, which includes a port, an airport, the tidelands area, gas/oil, water and health departments, etc., all requiring legal advice. Few cities have such diversity within their internal operation, making the selection of city attorney that much more critical.
We asked Parkin and Johnson questions – some simple ones, to determine if they understood the responsibilities of the position – and some tough ones, to learn about their knowledge and experience in dealing with various issues that arise regularly during the course of a workday or during a city council meeting.
Johnson is well educated, smart and has done an decent job as councilmember. He would have easily won a second term. But he’s simply not prepared to step into the city attorney’s shoes. He would be wise to get a job with a law firm – preferably one that practices municipal law – or join the staff of a city attorney’s office before seeking the top position.
During the interview, Johnson often referred to his education instead of answering the question asked. Harvard and UC Berkeley Law School are very impressive on a resume, but they are not a substitute for experience.
Johnson also said, “I’m the only one with elected experience. And that’s important because I had four years of saying no to very powerful groups.” The city attorney’s office should not be about politics, but Johnson has made it very political, calling on his friends in the Democratic Party to endorse him. We wonder if those who have endorsed him understand how inexperienced he is for the position? They are supporting a fellow Democrat – party loyalty – not who the best candidate for the job is. It’s clear from reading Johnson’s “Closing Argument” response on Page 25 that he confuses the role of city attorney with a city councilmember. For example, he states: “I think part of my role is to go to communities and solve problems . . .” No it isn’t. That’s what a mayor, councilmembers and city staff do, not the city attorney.
Parkin’s backers span the political spectrum and include individuals with very strong credentials: the former speaker of the California Assembly, Willie Brown, probably the most powerful state Democrat of the past 50 years; former Long Beach mayors Beverly O’Neill and Ernie Kell; L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and the former DA, Steve Cooley; former Gov. George Deukmejian, who also served as attorney general for the state; five retired judges of the Superior Court; and three former Long Beach city attorneys. Parkin earned these endorsements because of his experience, not due to politics. While most of Johnson’s “name” endorsements are outside the city, Parkin’s are within, including former councilmembers Rae Gabelich, Jackie Kell, Tonia Reyes Uranga, Doug Drummond, Frank Colonna, Doris Topsy-Elvord and Val Lerch – an interesting mix of supporters which indicates they recognize that this complex job requires an experienced hand.
We know Parkin is a well respected professional. However, we question Johnson’s conduct and maturity. For example, the Business Journal challenged Johnson to respond to a rumor that, during a recent Democratic Party gathering, he publicly referred to Parkin as a “good old white boy.”
Johnson’s response: “Sometimes you make jokes. I may have said something along those lines. I did not call him a good old white boy. What I said was I think the people have the right to choose here. And I think it’s an old boys’ network where basically the old city attorney passes down the new city attorney. And I oppose that. I may have said something along the lines of there’s nothing wrong with white guys, I am one myself, but I do think the people have the right to choose. I think that’s the big issue here. One issue in the race is do people have the right to choose whoever they want, or should the last city attorney pick the new city attorney? That’s the question.”
We’re not sure where Johnson is coming from. Voters always have a right to choose. It’s called an election, and promoting from within is admirable.
Lastly, serving as city attorney requires an individual to be independent and not beholding to any group. Yet, when asked, Johnson admitted to signing a pledge statement from a local union (Parkin said he did not sign the pledge). Here’s our exchange with Johnson, which, again, is further evidence of his misunderstanding of the office:
LBBJ: Have you signed a pledge from the Southern California District Council of the ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union]?
Johnson: I did sign the ILWU pledge.
LBBJ: Why would you sign it if you are trying to be independent?
Johnson: Well, I looked at it and a lot of it, frankly, was not relevant to the city attorney’s race.
LBBJ: So why sign? It reads: “I will unflinchingly support organized labor, collective bargaining and workers’ rights.” That’s a pretty strong statement to agree to.
Johnson: I support their legal right to organize. That’s the law. What am I going to say, that I will not support that right?
LBBJ: How about, “I will not support the subcontracting of public services?”
Johnson: Let’s talk about that. As the city attorney, you are not a policy maker. Of course I’m not going to support it because I’m not going to advocate for it either way. So the way I saw that was, a lot of that was frankly written for people running for city council and mayor. It was not addressed to city attorney because most people understand what the city attorney does. And so it was pretty easy to sign it because, in a sense, I know it’s not going to constrain me as an elected official. I’m going to be the city attorney who does not take these policy positions. I’m going to advise the city council, so of course I’m not going to support various things. I generally have not signed pledges, but in this case I felt that it would not constrain me as an elected official because they weren’t really relevant to the aspects of the city attorney. So while I didn’t sign pledges when I ran for city council, in this case, since it’s irrelevant to my duties, I didn’t see any harm to the people of Long Beach. The question is, will it affect your independence as a city attorney. I felt like it would not. That was my decision.”
Mayoral Candidates Weigh In
The February 18 edition of the Business Journal asked the top mayoral candidates to tell our readers what experience they felt was needed for the city attorney to do a good job.
Robert Garcia said: “I believe that a qualified candidate for city attorney will have experience in municipal law, understand the charter, and have litigation and management experience.”
Bonnie Lowenthal wrote: “Of course, our city attorney must have an extensive litigation background and experience practicing municipal law.”
Doug Otto, an attorney, wrote: “The job of the Long Beach City Attorney is one of the most complex jobs any attorney could undertake. This is because the breadth of responsibilities that the Long Beach City Attorney’s Office has exceeds similar jobs in almost all other cities. To be truly successful, the elected city attorney should have a diverse background in many of the areas for which the City Attorney’s Office is responsible.”
Lastly, Gerrie Schipske said: “Long Beach has been fortunate to have stability in the Office of City Attorney. More importantly, the voters have elected those attorneys who have worked their way up through the office, bringing with them a wealth of experience and knowledge that has served the city well.”
On the following several pages are responses to some of the questions we asked Parkin and Johnson regarding the city attorney’s position. The Business Journal is devoting a considerable amount of space to this race, but, as stated in the opening paragraph, this is the most important decision voters have to make this election season.
Who’s The City Attorney’s Client?
The City Charter is very clear about the role of the city attorney: “To be the sole and exclusive legal advisor of the City, the City Council and all City commissions, committees, officers and employees with reference to all of their functions, powers and duties under this Charter . . .”
When asked, “Who do you consider to be the city attorney’s clients?” Johnson’s reponse was: “There’s no clear answer. . . . I see my client, basically, as the people of Long Beach as represented by the Long Beach City Council. . . . I see myself as, basically, advising the city council. They are the policy makers and they represent the people of Long Beach at large. I always say the ultimate client is the people of Long Beach, but because the people of Long Beach are kind of an amorphous group that I can’t know exactly what they think on any given issue, I think my duty on a typical day-to-day basis is to accept the fact that nine councilmembers represent them.”
Here’s Parkin’s response to the same question: Under the charter, the city attorney is the sole and exclusive legal advisor to the city, and the city is the city council acting as a body, it’s boards and commissions, it’s employees and it’s officials. The way I would describe it is, the city attorney’s office is a small law firm. We have one client. And our duty of loyalty is to the city and the city sets policy through its city council. We have a city manager-city council form of government, so that is our client. We constantly get calls from the public saying, ‘You’re the city attorney. I want you to sue this guy for me or I want you to represent me.’ And we have to explain to them, we’re not the attorney for the citizens of Long Beach. We have a municipal corporation as our client and we represent them. We can’t give legal advice to the citizens.”
Charter Versus General Law Cities?
In very basic terms, a Charter city, such as Long Beach, has authority over its own affairs, while a General Law city must abide by the state’s general law.
We asked the candidates: “Tell us the difference between a Charter city and a General Law city.”
Johnson’s response: “Cities, unlike states and the federal government, are not sovereign entities. Sovereign entities control their own destinies. Cities can be eliminated because we are controlled by a higher power, which is the State of California. So if the State of California tomorrow said, “There is no City of Long Beach,” they could pass a bill and it would be eliminated as a city. . . . In the early part of the 1900s, the legislature would have to pass bills to create every city. As California grew, that became unwieldy. So they decided to create a default law called the General Law. Basically the state legislature said we’re going to have a general law in the government code where, if you choose, you can just follow these general rules. Five councilmembers, a rotating mayor, etc. A lot of cities in California follow that code, so they are General Law cities. They also said that, if you want to have more power, more control over your own destiny, you could write your own rules, which is a City Charter. A City Charter would basically govern your city. That’s how you can govern yourself. Now, it’s not technically a constitution because, once again, you are not a sovereign entity, but in many ways it acts as a constitution because it is your highest law. Most big cities are Charter cities, but a lot of smaller cities follow the default rules.”
Parkin’s response: There are two types of cities in the State of California: General Law and a Charter city. The Charter city has a document that is adopted by its voters and that acts as the city’s constitution. If you are in a charter city you have some additional authorities or limitations of power, depending on what the charter says, that General Law cities don’t. General Law cities are controlled by the state legislature and enactments by the state legislature, so their roles, responsibilities and duties are all determined by legislation. An example would be in elections. The City of Long Beach holds our elections at our own dates and times. And we have adopted a municipal code that deals with elections. And those sections that are not covered by our elections code, we refer back to the state elections code. So we can adopt an ordinance, and we have adopted an ordinance, that says we want to do our elections in April and June, not June and November. General Law cities’ elections would be June and November. So it allows the cities additional flexibility and additional powers. That’s the main difference between those two cities.
The Charter: A Grant Of Power, Or A Limitation Of Power?
Question: How do you view the City Charter? Is it a grant of power or a limitation of power? Please explain.
Johnson’s Response: The federal constitution is a law of enumerated power. So, for example, the Affordable Care Act debate was all about if Congress had the authority to pass legislation that required people to have health insurance. They ended up saying yes, but that was debatable. So the question you’re asking is what is a City Charter? Is it that kind of document? I say, look, the City Charter basically lays out how the city is going to be governed, what powers people have and you have no powers that are given. That’s why I say it is a limiting document. For example, if the City Charter says that the mayor can veto a law, the mayor has the power to do that and it lays out exactly how the city council can override that veto. I see the City Charter as laying out the rules of the road for how the city is governed and how all of the departments – the highest rule of the departments, basically.
Question: So it’s both?
Johnson: I think essentially it is enumerated powers. You can’t do things that are more than what the charter allows you to. For example, limited. I see it more as a limiting document.
Parkin’s Response: It is best described as a document of limitation of power. It clearly says what the city can do and sets the limits. But it gives parameters on what we can do or it clearly calls out what’s required to be done. Certain sections would say if the city is going to adopt a resolution or an ordinance, it clearly says you have to have five votes of the council. So it is a limitation on powers in that if you only have six people like we had at council [recently], we had an ordinance that was coming up, it might have passed four to two, but it wouldn’t have passed because the charter says you have to have five votes. So I would describe it as a limitation.
The Business Journal asked the candiates about their litigation experience, such as how many trials they’ve had and whether or not they were municipal cases.
Johnson’s response: I did work as a litigator for several years, which meant I was involved in dozens of cases. When at the highest levels of the law, you don’t have a lot of trials. So I did have some involvement in some trials, but not very many because a good attorney, number one, settles cases and, number two, in very large cases, very often they don’t go to trial. For example, if you have a $70 million litigation case that might go for six or seven years of legal work, it almost always settles the day before trial because of the expense of trial, etc. But I got very good outcomes for my clients. I actually worked on an international slavery and trafficking case. This is a case that spanned countries. It was in Indonesia. It was in California. She was abused sexually and physically. It was such a difficult case that prosecutors didn’t even bring it. She came to us for justice, and I represented her at no charge to the firm. It was a pro bono case. After years of litigation – I spent over a year of my time – we got her what I think is a very fair settlement. That’s an example of all of the things we work on, all of the motions, all of the practice leading to a great outcome for the client. So I have quite a bit of litigation experience. I think that is going to be a benefit to Long Beach.
Parkin’s response: My entire career is municipal. So yes, I have six actual jury trials to conclusion. They ranged from trip and fall on a sidewalk to an auto accident to a civil rights police case. So those are kind of the areas. I had a lawsuit involved with the Queen Mary bankruptcy, which was a four-year case in federal bankruptcy court. Then I had a lawsuit that went up to the Court of Appeal in the California 2nd District. We sued the State of California on oil well abandonment funds – setting aside money for oil well abandonments – and we got a decision out of the Court of Appeal to set aside up to $200 million for the abandonment of the oil wells in Southern California in the Long Beach unit, which then went to the legislature. In addition to the jury trials, I have probably had 20 or 30 bench trials, which means in front of a judge, no jury. And then arbitrations and mediations, probably in excess of 50 or so, and depositions and all discovery stuff that’s related to that. I did litigation from 1995 to almost the end of 1999 for the city.
Hiring Attorneys And Contracting Out Services
Question: If you were elected city attorney and current attorneys employed with the department left, are you prepared to hire attorneys?
Johnson: Absolutely. One thing I want to do is actually hire more attorneys than there are today. For example, I think we can save tremendous monies by bringing some attorneys in-house. So even if nobody leaves, the city attorney’s department has over $4 million in outside counsel fees that are essentially no-bid contracts. What I mean by that is there is no request for qualifications for these folks. What happens right now is these firms might get paid $300,000 or $700,000 a year. We don’t go to market. We don’t say who can do the best work at the lowest price. It’s just basically whoever the last city attorney thought, their friend or whatever [should be hired]. That’s not a good process. I think we’re paying too much and getting too little. So one thing I’m going to do is have a fair process so when we do have outside counsel anyone can participate and tell us how they are going to provide a better service at a lower price. But also, I’ll tell you as someone who has been outside counsel and charged $450 an hour, these folks are very expensive. I think we should bring more attorneys in house to do some of that work. Not all of it, but some of it. I think our attorneys probably provide the work at half the cost, even with all of their benefits. And you get better quality because, when those cases are over, that institutional memory stays in the office. So one thing I’m interested in doing is relooking at the balance.
Question: As appointed city attorney, are you prepared to hire attorneys?
Parkin: I have hired one attorney in the past eight months. We had an attorney in our litigation section retire. I have a group [within the office] that does the initial interview and we get it to three or four [candidates]. Then we talk and try to reach a consensus. Since it is a small office, you’ve got to have people who fit personality-wise and experience-wise. Sometimes we’re looking for a certain skill set since we don’t have a training opportunity because we don’t have a lot of attorneys.
Question: We were a little bit unclear here about the city attorney’s budget used for contracting services. Is it $1 million, is it $4 million? What’s the number?
Parkin: For outside legal services it’s more than $4 million, and that varies from year to year. The average might be $4 or $5 million a year for the last few years. I can tell you, I think the majority of that is being paid for on projects in the harbor.
Question: So the harbor is actually picking up the tab.
Parkin: The harbor is paying for it, yes. I’m sensitive to outside counsel, as everybody else is. But we also look at it as we’re contracting labor and it’s expensive, but it’s cheaper than bringing on a full-time person forever. So, for example, in the harbor department they currently have maybe $4 billion in construction projects coming through the pipeline. That’s not always going to be the case.
LBBJ: What is the extent of your knowledge and experience handling workers’ compensation matters?
Johnson: At the private firm I did do some workers’ compensation work in terms of advising State Fund. That’s the largest insurer in California for workers’ compensation for employers. I think about half of employers use the State Compensation Insurance Fund. . . . They are a government agency. But they operate like a for-profit business. They use no tax dollars. So in many ways, they are like an enterprise department we have here. So I did advise them quite a bit. They have a lot of the typical issues of a government agency, like how do you use the Brown Act, what are the public procurement regulations, how does civil service work. These are all things you don’t have to worry about as a private employer. You can just hire whoever you want. So I did a lot of advising for them. Also, as a workers’ compensation insurer, they of course ask us for our advice on a number of matters about how basically to most effectively pay claims, keep rates down, etc.
Parkin’s Response: Twenty-two of our 64 employees are handling workers comp. It’s a huge part of the city’s budget and a huge part of our office. It’s a balancing test – to balance getting the medical attention and benefits that the employee needs because they have been injured on the job against the cost of those services and trying to minimize the cost and comply with the law. It’s a heavily regulated area of the law. There are a lot of rules that probably don’t make sense to normal people, don’t make sense to me when I’m working on those cases. It’s something that we’re looking at and we have talked about.
We’re starting an audit of the workers comp section for the city attorney’s office. We’re going to bring somebody in, they’re going to take 400 or 500 claims, they’re going to pick them apart and they’re going to tell us are you guys using best practices. The state comes in and audits the workers comp I think every four or five years, and that’s going on. But in addition to that, we’re bringing somebody from the outside in saying hey what’s the industry doing out there? Are we doing it right? Are we doing everything we can be doing to minimize cost, deliver the services we need to deliver and minimize our exposure?
Question: As you know, the city oversees the tidelands area for the State of California. What is your knowledge regarding the legal aspects of the administration and operations of the tidelands trust assets?
Johnson: This is something I’ve been interested in for many years and have been involved in since working for the city for the last eight years. The tidelands, as you probably know, is a trust. The tidelands area is state property and the city manages it as a trustee on behalf of the people of California. So one thing I always keep in mind is whatever we are doing, is it for the benefit of the people of California or is it for the sole benefit of the people of Long Beach? If it’s the latter, then it’s a trust violation. That’s the basic doctrine of the tidelands. I’ll give you a simple example. The Aquarium of the Pacific, that’s a tidelands asset. We paid for it with tidelands money. That’s okay because the people of California benefit by coming and visiting this beautiful aquarium, et cetera. What’s not okay is if they do something like, say, free admission day for residents of Long Beach or free admission day for 7th District residents. That’s not okay because now you are taking a state asset and having it benefit only Long Beach residents.
Parkin: I’ve been working with the Tidelands probably since I started with the city in 1984. My initial introduction to it was working for the city in our oil operations department. Tidelands basically began in the City of Long Beach and the other cities around 1911 when the state granted to the City of Long Beach all the rights interest and control into the Tidelands. That means basically the mean high tide line along the shore is Tidelands, and then you have property that’s Tidelands-adjacent. And in the oil operations, they had subsidence in the 1950s and they have a subsidence control act which meant they had to unitize and start injecting water. And then they discovered oil offshore of Long Beach and decided they wanted to build four oil islands and produce oil over on Pier J by where the Queen Mary is. The state owns that property and we are the owner in trust for that property. Just to back up a minute, in the 50s the city was producing all this oil. We had a lot of money. Then we started spending it a little more and more out of the Tidelands on municipal projects. The city went to the legislature, got approval, said we don’t need this much money for the Tidelands, we want to build libraries and roads and etc. The City of Long Beach was sued and the court found that the money was restricted use Tidelands money. That was known as the Mallon decision in 1955. After that case, there was legislation in 1964 that identified the boundary of the Tidelands basically along Seaside Way and along the bluff, and it also took a lot of the money that the city had and transferred it to the State of California. They said you don’t need all this money for the trust, it’s coming to us. Oil money. . . . To the city’s credit, they are always trying to find a creative way to spend Tidelands money, and it has been my job to tell them no. . . . So our job has been, under legislation, to report what we spend Tidelands money on to make sure that it’s an appropriate Tidelands use, so that it’s for the benefit of the people of the state of California, not just the citizens of Long Beach.
Question: Is there anything else you would like to discuss?
Johnson: I think this race offers the people a clear choice, and they have the right to make that choice. The question is, do we want to continue as we have for 50 years and basically have this be an inherited position passed on from one city attorney to another, or do the people have the right to choose? I think it’s also what kind of city attorney do you want? If you think leadership is not important, then don’t choose me. I’m the leadership candidate. My position as the city attorney is fundamentally a leader, someone who leads that office and makes those tough calls like when it’s time to settle even when it’s not politically popular, or when it’s time to give pension reform advice even though it goes against major special interest groups. Those are the skills that I believe the city attorney should have. And my opponent, he has been in the city attorney’s office, he is kind of the career guy. So I think the people are really going to decide, what do they want in the city attorney’s office? Do you want proactive leadership? One thing I’m finding in this race is that very few people, when I knock on doors, even know we have a city attorney, much less who the city attorney is. And that’s the truth. Why is that? They’re on the same ballot as mayor. I think part of my role is to go to communities and solve problems and make this a better place. That’s the leadership I’m going to provide. . . . I’m the only one with elected experience. And that’s important because I had four years of saying no to very powerful groups. I think if you ask the question, what are the main issues coming up for future councils, the big issues are not going to be Social Security or child education. The big issues are going to be pension reform, which is going to have to happen again; and fair negotiated contracts, where the city attorney is the advisor and where 90 percent of the money goes. . . . I think the legitimate question is going to be, can my opponent, the handpicked successor of the previous city attorney, stand up and go against his patrons and do the right thing?
Parkin: The city attorney position shouldn’t be a political position. I have spent my entire career here. I have no other political aspirations. This would be the culmination of my career. It’s a challenging job. It’s an extremely interesting job to do. One of the reasons I decided to run is because of the folks in the office. We have a great office. I’d like to keep that. We have a wealth of municipal law experience. We don’t do a good enough job of tooting our horn or advocating what our office does and all of the things that we are involved with in the city. But at the end of the day, that’s okay. If we do it right, somebody else can take the credit and get the headlines. The people who work in the city attorney’s office want to work there. They could probably go out and make more money in the private practice. I think that’s clear. This is a complicated city and has a lot of different aspects. So I agree one hundred percent that experience and knowledge are necessary to be able to do this job. Lastly, institutional knowledge is important. We’re going to have five new councilmembers. As city attorney, I am going to sit down with those five people and discuss items such as how you make a motion, how a public meeting is different from a private meeting, etc. They’ve got to be careful who they talk to, when they talk to them, all those things. We want to answer their questions and have them understand the services we provide. We want to make sure that they have what they need from us. If we do that, I think we’re doing a good job.