- Greggory Moore
With Long Beach’s acting city attorney trying to stave off challenges from a sitting city councilmember and an attorney who has filed over a dozen lawsuits against the city, the LBC has never seen such a hotly contested race to head the city’s legal department. And as Election Day draws nigh, neither challenger is pulling any punches regarding their problems with the man currently holding the position.
That man is Charles Parkin, the longtime assistant and deputy city attorney who was appointed to the lead role when then-City Attorney Robert Shannon stepped down in mid 2013. From the establishment side Parkin is battling James Johnson, the former assistant city auditor who is finishing his first terms at the 7th District council representative. From the anti-establishment side Parkin is besieged by Matt Pappas, whose litigation against Long Beach include successful settlements in use-of-force cases against the police department and the Pack case, which has had a significant impact in the city’s history with medical marijuana, a cause Pappas has fervently championed.
Despite coming at Parkin from opposite sides, Johnson and Pappas have a nearly identical list of grievances with Parkin’s performance and candidacy. For starters they point to misleading election materials, such as at least one pro-Parkin mailer, sent out by the Long Beach Police Officers Association (LBPOA), that twice urges voters to “re-elect City Attorney Charles Parkin,” even though Parkin has never been elected to the office. Both Pappas and Johnson say such a mailer is tantamount to fraud.
“You can’t re-elect someone who’s never been elected,” says Johnson. “Now, they said that twice in that mailer. That was not a typo: that was an intentional defrauding of the Long Beach public. And I think what you’re seeing is a complete disdain for Long Beach residents.”
Johnson and Pappas also bristle at claims by the LBPOA that Parkin has “[a]ggressively and successfully prosecuted cases against drug dealers, prostitution, and other criminals” when in fact the City Attorney’s Office does not engage in prosecutions of any kind.
“Charlie Parkin has never prosecuted a criminal case, ever,” says Pappas. “He’s never worked for a prosecutor. It’s the city prosecutor who handles prosecutions in Long Beach, and it’s the district attorney who handles felony prosecutions in L.A. County.”
Johnson concurs, noting that Parkin has no experience in either the City Prosecutor’s Office or the District Attorney’s Office.
“This is a civil position,” he says. “The city attorney does not prosecute people, period. And I think to state otherwise is, at the very least, highly misleading. […] I think to treat the voters like they’re idiots and put out these blatant lies, whether it’s saying Charlie is a lifelong prosecutor and he’s done all these things he obviously hasn’t, or to make him look like an incumbent when there is not incumbent in this open race, […] there’s basically an attitude that the last city attorney has a right to choose the next city attorney, and not the Long Beach public.”
Neither Parkin nor the LBPOA responded to Random Lengths News‘s request for comment.
Johnson and Pappas each give the City Attorney’s Office low marks on several fronts during Parkin’s time there. Johnson, for example, criticizes Parkin for his complicity in obtaining approval for “a retroactive pension spiking formula adopted in 2002” without properly informing the city council of the cost to the City (which Johnson says was approximately $300 million and led to a 20% reduction in police, cuts to after-school programs, etc), along with Parkin and company alert the council to a conflict of interest in recommending this deal, which, according to a Johnson mailer, resulted in a $67,000-per-year increase in Parkin’s pension.
“The very team that was proposing this deal—the city manager, city attorney, etc.—went home with hundreds of thousands or millions in their pocket that night,” Johnson says. “The last city attorney [i.e., Robert Shannon], I think, brought home around a million dollars. And I think that should have been disclosed to the public: that the people proposing this had a financial interest. It may not have been legally required, but I think ethics is about doing what’s right, not just what the law requires.”
Johnson also questions the soundness of the legal advice provided the City Attorney’s Office gave to the city council concerning medical-marijuana dispensaries, noting that the council instituted a 2012 ban on dispensaries based on the city attorney’s claim that, based on the Pack decision, the City could not legally regulate dispensaries.
“As the next city attorney, I would take the time to pick up the phone and call Los Angeles, call San Francisco, call the other cities in the state [that allow dispensaries] and see how they’re dealing with this issue and see if it is accurate that they can’t regulate,” Johnson says. “As someone who supports medical marijuana, my goal would be to help the council—if this is their policy, as I think it is—to get the point where we have safe and regulated access to medicine in a way that helps sick people, but also protects neighborhoods. I think that’s the goal, and I am skeptical that we’re truly prohibited from doing that.”
Pappas’s evaluation of the performance of the City Attorney’s Office in recent years is even harsher.
“I think suing the City has given me a unique perspective into the utter incompetence that is present in the City Attorney’s Office,” he says. “In my time doing this against cities in Southern California, I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger group of bozos than I’ve seen in the Long Beach City Attorney’s Office. The idea of acting the way that they do and empowering bad behavior in City employees […] I just think that the behavior’s atrocious and it needs to change. You have to kind of have that unique perspective to come in and say, ‘This is something I can change.'”
Pappas is running on a series of unconventional platforms. Among the changes he promises if elected are amending City Charter to mandate that LBPD policies are governed by five-member commission with an inspector general who can authorize an investigation of the department for any reason; and to require that all officers wear body cameras (such as LAPD officers began wearing in January). Pappas also to cut the annual salary he would receive from its current level of $269,000 to $150,000.
For his part, Johnson believes his leadership qualities and his ability to properly break down and explain contracts—which he said account for 90% of the City’s costs—are part of why he is the best candidate for the job, and that he plans to make the position a far more proactive one than it has been.
“We should demand from all elected officials— whether that’s the councilmembers, mayor, or the city attorney—that part of their job is to go into the community, hear what the concerns are,” Johnson says. “[…] I think one way is being a more proactive city attorney and really going out into the community and asking [residents] how we can improve their neighborhoods. When I’m out knocking on doors, [I find] a lot of people don’t even know we have a city attorney, much less who the city attorney is. And I think that’s a problem. I think part of the reason for that is that for the last 20, 30, 40 years the city attorney has not done things that we expect of elected officials, such as go to community associations, tell people about their vision, ask them what their problems are, etc. [The position of city attorney] has really been seen as sit inside of city hall, go home at 4:30, and that’s your job. I see it differently. So one thing I would do is go to neighborhoods across the city. I want to learn about what’s happening in different neighborhoods in North Long Beach and talk to people in Downtown Long Beach, talk to people in East Long Beach. That helps to give context to being a better city attorney. So I look at a case of someone slipping and falling on a sidewalk and suing the City for a million dollars, and I think, ‘I’ve heard about these problems in the city. How do we actually be proactive and fix these sidewalks, instead of facing all these lawsuits?’ Because by the time there’s a lawsuit, you’ve already lost.”
Johnson also says he will do a better job than recent city attorneys making choices regarding when to litigate a case and when to settle.
“I think the city attorney has a critical role to play in saving the city money,” he says. “I think you’re going to see me think carefully about when the city can save money by settling case instead of going to trial.”
Pappas agrees, saying that several recent cases lost by the City—including the Doug Zerby shooting case—easily could and obviously should have been settled.
While Pappas and Johnson agree on many points, one point on which Pappas agrees with Parkin in regard to Johnson concerns Johnson’s pertinent experience, or lack thereof.
“James is running to lead the legal department—which is 50–60% litigation—of the second-largest city in Los Angeles County,” Pappas says. “He lacks the experience to do that. I think you need to be somebody who’s been involved in litigation—gone to court, gone to appellate court, understands how that works—to evaluate what advice you’re going to give your client on whether you should litigate a case or whether you should settle a case.”
Johnson brushes off this criticism, noting he has 10 years experience as a member of the California State Bar, with litigation experience at two law firms. But he says his more recent work experience is especially pertinent to his being qualified to serve as city attorney.
“I helped the City of Long Beach rewrite the city constitution, the charter…. That’s the highest law in the City of Long Beach,” he says. “Do I think that’s relevant to [taking on] the position of city attorney? Absolutely. I also served in the office of the city auditor, where I oversaw the City’s contracts, making sure the City wasn’t defrauded.”
And while Johnson does not claim to have Pappas’s litigation experience, nor Parkin’s experience as a bureaucrat (“If your position is you want to have the bureaucrat who’s sat at the desk the longest and pushed the most paper, I’m not your candidate”), he notes that he is the only one of the three with elected experience, and that he is the most proven leader.
“it really comes down to how you see this position,” he says. “I hope that everyone takes the time to really think about this race, think about this office, and make their choice about who shares their values and who is more likely to show leadership and really move this city forward.”
Johnson and Pappas agree that having a seriously contested race for city attorney—something they say hasn’t really happened in Long Beach during the last half-century—is good for the city and for democracy.
“Even though [Pappas] is my opponent, he makes some interesting points about how this is an open, democratic seat, and everyone should be able to choose,” Johnson says. “I think having three candidates—or frankly, even if you had more candidates—is good for democracy. The reason I think that is that this is an elected position, and that’s a strength. By having various people run and explain their vision for the office, people have choices.”
(Image: An altered detail from a pro-Parkin Long Beach Police Officers Association mailer stating implying that there are only two candidates for city attorney.)