Rarity in Huntington: a hot city attorney race

Jennifer McGrath is no stranger to a challenge.

The longtime Huntington Beach city attorney has weathered storms, including a high-profile drunken-driving case, in which she pleaded guilty, and a controversial attempt to outsource her office.

But this year, perhaps for the first time, she could be facing a serious challenge for her job.

McGrath, 46, is running for city attorney for the fourth time, and while she has historically won the seat by wide margins — starting in 2002, when she beat three other candidates with nearly 50% of the vote — this year, her opponent is looking to pose more of a threat in the November election.

Michael Gates, 39, a private attorney and longtime Huntington Beach resident, has gained the backing of Republican heavyweights from around Orange County, along with more than $140,000 — much of it in the form of loans to himself — in his campaign war chest. McGrath, meanwhile, has collected $11,500.

"Running for city attorney in Huntington Beach is really addressing what I consider some very serious needs in city government," the soft-spoken father of five said. "I've seen some of the successes in public entities with the work that I've done ... and I'm hoping to bring those successes to Huntington Beach."

McGrath said she has earned loyal support from a range of residents who are firmly embedded in the Huntington Beach community and doesn't need a lot of money to win.

"Honestly, I don't think this race is getting any more publicity than my opponent is giving it," she said. "Not only do I think there's nothing to establish that I haven't represented the city in an outstanding, fair, public way ... but I do think that having no experience in municipal law, regardless of having a staff that does, is a disservice to the community."

Though it's a race that doesn't usually garner much excitement, the marked contrasts between McGrath and Gates in everything from their job philosophies to their overall demeanor highlight that, as residents of the only city in Orange County to elect its attorney, Huntington Beach voters have a unique choice before them.

Council-attorney relationship

On Aug. 3, 1937, Huntington Beach residents said in a special municipal election that they wanted to elect their city attorney, and that was that. The vote was 513 to 416.

Six ballot measures over the years have failed to overturn that decision, so this year, residents of what is today a midsize Surf City will be among the relatively few cities statewide to cast a vote for city attorney.

Somewhat paradoxically, though, the race hasn't been much of a contest for decades. McGrath's predecessor, Gail Hutton, had held the office from 1978 through 1998, with challengers on and off.

That could be, in part, because there's often misunderstanding about what a city attorney does.

"A city's relationship with its city attorney is an interesting one," said Tom Brown, president of the city attorney department of the League of California Cities. "When they're working with staff on any given issue or topic, city attorneys have to recognize that the focus and the direction and the priority may change."

The city attorney, he added, is beholden to the policy directives of the City Council.

Even if, say, a city attorney disagrees with a law proposed by a council member, it is still his or her responsibility to make sure it's the best-written, most legally defensible version possible.

Same party, different views

Though Gates and McGrath agree that the role of a city attorney shouldn't be overtly partisan, the two differ on where the responsibilities of the job end and politicking begins.

Gates criticized McGrath for settling too many cases — particularly excessive-force lawsuits against the Police Department — rather than taking them to trial.

Those decisions, he alleged, have contributed to Huntington Beach's reputation in law-enforcement circles as "Settlement City" — essentially an easy target for would-be plaintiffs and greedy attorneys hoping to make a quick buck.

"My goal, instead of settling every case, or settling nearly every case, is to bring much more of a defense-minded approach ... meaning [I'll] be willing to litigate those cases and take them to trial in order to save the taxpayers money," Gates said.

McGrath denied that the city isn't making the most efficient use of its money by settling cases. It's not her place to say either way, she said.

"There is no veracity to the statement that we're 'Settlement City,'" she said. "I don't have responsibility over risk management ... so he's painting with a pretty broad brush about something I have no control over."

In addition, it is the City Council members, essentially the attorney's clients, who have to agree to settlements.

Gates said he also would prioritize reviews of business transactions to help bolster the city's economy — a promise McGrath dismissed as posturing.

"He's claiming to run as a pro-business candidate," she said. "What? Does that mean you're not pro-environment? You're supposed to be neutral representing all of the city."

McGrath, also a Republican, chalked up Gates' allegations to an increasingly partisan local-government landscape.

"Costa Mesa and Tustin are going through the same thing," she said. "The tea party, the far right, whatever you want to call it, it's the polarizing of Republicans from moderate to far right."

The list of endorsements on Gates' website is one of few places where area conservatives who are competing in other races appear alongside one another, including Huntington Beach Mayor Matt Harper and Newport Beach Councilman Keith Curry, who are locked in a battle for the 74th Assembly District seat.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas did not respond to requests for comment on his decision to get involved in the city attorney race by endorsing the challenger.

McGrath touted the fact that her endorsements come from across the political spectrum and include Republican Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carchio and Democratic Councilwoman Connie Boardman.

Still, Gates said, he believes there's an appetite for a new voice in the community.

"We definitely need this change right now," he said. "And I kind of think there's a sentiment, both nationally and locally, that voters are taking a fresh look at who the candidates are ... and they're deciding for the challengers in the races."

Staff writer Anthony Clark Carpio contributed to this report.

Free public forum

Huntington Beach city attorney candidates Jennifer McGrath and Michael Gates are scheduled to participate in a free public forum from 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, 21100 Pacific Coast Hwy.

For more information, call the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce at (714) 536-8888.

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