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Huntington Beach agenda item shows rift between council and city attorney – Orange County Register


Huntington Beach City Council will close its legislative year with harsh criticism from elected city attorney Michael Gates.

Barbara Delgleize and Mike Posey, appointed mayor and deputy mayor two weeks ago, and city councilor Dan Kalmick, are supporting an idea – which will be discussed at the December 21 council meeting – that would allow the city to secure a second legal opinion from an “outside law firm that would report directly and support city council.”

The city’s agenda report for the meeting explains their rationale:

“Over the past few years, there have been numerous circumstances where the city council has been uncomfortable with the quality and accuracy of legal advice provided by the city attorney.”

Huntington Beach is the only city in the county in which the city attorney is elected. Most cities in California hire outside legal counsel.

Some complain that the election of a municipal prosecutor makes the position less objective and more political. Posey has long clashed with Gates, suggesting that Gates base his legal advice on political ideology.

However, changing the current system would be complicated, requiring a ballot measure rather than a simple council vote.

Huntington Beach was founded as a “charter town” in 1909, giving it some autonomy from the state. Several other towns in the county, including Irvine, Santa Ana, and Anaheim, also have charters – their own constitutions, in a sense, guiding local government procedures.

Proposed changes to city charters must be submitted to voters for approval. In Huntington Beach, that involves asking residents if it’s time to join neighboring towns in how they choose legal representation.

Gates considers this agenda item a “violation of the law” and a “blatant attack on our democracy”.

In a scathing four-page letter to Delgleize, Posey and Kalmick, Gates wrote: “I will examine all available legal options (to defend) the City Charter against clearly displayed political opportunism.

“I am the only people in the community responsible for interpreting the Charter and providing advice. “

Gates added, “If you don’t like it, move to a city that has a form of government more to your liking.”

The agenda item lists expensive taxpayer-funded lawsuits that Gates initially viewed with optimism. For example, in July, a superior court ordered Huntington Beach to pay $ 3.5 million to cover attorney fees accrued by a longtime legal opponent, the Kennedy Commission.

In a six-year court battle, the Orange County-based Kennedy Commission – which advocates for increased housing opportunities for low-income families – sued Huntington Beach over a plan development that would exclude low-income housing. The city is appealing the amount of legal fees.

Delgleize, Posey and Kalmick also point to a 2018 lawsuit filed by Huntington Beach against the state of California. The claim argued that the city’s charter allowed it to ignore SB-54, state law designed to protect undocumented immigrants.

“On January 10, 2020, the 4th District Court of Appeals ruled that the legal theory advanced by the city attorney was incorrect and Huntington Beach lost this case,” the agenda item reads.

Further, the report cites an age discrimination lawsuit filed by two former employees against Gates and the city, which was settled last May for $ 2.5 million, saying: “City council has made the appropriate decision to limit the city’s future liability. “

Gates, who is running for re-election next year, has adamantly defended his two four-year terms while addressing every trial mentioned.

“Under my leadership, we ushered in an era of extremely high quality legal representation for the city… winning trials and unlikely trials,” he wrote. “Yet you claim… that’s not good enough for you.”

Gates described the attorney’s fees remitted to the Kennedy Commission as “awarded in error.”

In the city’s unsuccessful attempt to ignore SB-54, Gates said “the Court of Appeal got it wrong.”

Gates also said he, and not city council, had the final say on hiring a second legal opinion. “In essence, even thinking about bringing in outside legal counsel requires my written permission. “

Delgleize said Thursday that she and her two colleagues were not aiming to usurp the duties of the city attorney.

“The city council is looking for the possibility of having another resource in case of need,” she said. “Sometimes we have to look to lawyers with specific areas of expertise.”

City Councilor Kim Carr said she was not aware of the item until she saw it on the agenda.

“There is a lot of energy behind that statement, in the way the item was designed,” Carr said. “This reflects the tension the council felt with the city attorney.

“But if you take some of that energy out of the tongue, it’s all about vanilla. All they ask is a second opinion.