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City attorney candidates air positions at forum

Potential legal challenges and the relationship between local and state governments were among the topics debated at a recent Huntington Beach city attorney candidates forum.

Incumbent Jennifer McGrath and challenger Michael Gates participated in the hourlong discussion, presented by the city's Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 20 at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach.

Chamber President and Chief Executive Jerry Wheeler moderated the event, which was attended by about 30 people. Each candidate had five minutes to answer the questions given to them.

Wheeler asked the candidates how they would relieve tensions between the city and the state.

Since Huntington Beach is a charter city, McGrath said, it has to work with organizations like the League of California Cities to influence statewide policies.

Gates, a private attorney, concurred but added that the city attorney should be more proactive and have continual dialogue with various state agencies. He used as an example September's Wet Electric electronic-music concert, which city officials learned about only two months earlier.

Having just gone through a disturbance at the end of the U.S. Open of Surfing, City Council members were concerned at the time about the event to take place on the state beach.

Gates said the city could have had more input had it been talking earlier to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which was involved in the planning.

"It's important for the city attorney to be on our toes and to be making inquiries both at the county and state level to find out what's going on," he said.

Wheeler asked what the candidates would do when council members turn to them for legal advice about an issue on which they do not agree.

Gates said the city attorney is there to "advise the council on what is legal and illegal, what is permissible or not permissible."

"The council [members] are not lobbyists for the city attorney," he said. "The council's there to make laws, to make policies within the boundaries of the law."

He added that the city attorney should have a strong position on an item if it begins to "go too far."

McGrath said her duty is to help the entire seven-person council, "but every single council member has questions and wants inquiries as to how they can accomplish something."

"My job is really to facilitate the implementation of the policies the council wants," she said. "It's not my job to lead them. It's not my job to tell them and then expect them to listen to me. If any of you have ever hired an attorney, you know you can also ignore your attorney."

Citing Huntington Beach's sexual-predator ordinance, McGrath said she told the City Council that such a law would be unconstitutional, but members passed it in November 2011. The ordinance, intended to ban registered sex offenders from city parks, was repealed this year after similar bans were found to be unconstitutional by California's 4th District Court of Appeal.

The candidates discussed what they believe are the biggest legal challenges facing the city.

McGrath said lawsuits are bound to arise because of the amount of development happening under the Beach/Edinger Corridor Specific Plan. She also said she and her office will be "embroiled in litigation regarding the massage establishments."

"We went from 29 to 81 massage establishments while the state decided that they knew how to regulate [them] better than the city of Huntington Beach," she said. She added that the issue has become more about human trafficking than prostitution.

Gates said legal struggles will be more about approving business permits in a timely manner.

"What I'm hearing out there is that there's maybe a policy that's not business-friendly," he said. "But I'm also hearing that [business owners] have had a lot of difficulty with the city attorney's office getting permits approved."

McGrath said building permits and licenses don't go through the city attorney's office but instead are handled by risk management, which is under the human resources department.

"If you submit insurance that's accurate, it goes through risk management and it's turned around within 24 hours," she said. "If you had an experience where it was delayed for four months, that's because something was wrong with the insurance and was delayed in risk management. So I'm not going to own everything that goes wrong at City Hall."

McGrath said during closing statements that the City Council "won't listen to me if they don't trust me" and that her job is to "make things happen that will enhance the benefits for the city of Huntington Beach."

"It's not to dictate what those policies are," she said. "It's not to dictate what the departments do, and it's not to dictate what the City Council does. It's to take what the City Council wants to happen and put it together in a package so that it's legally defensible and something that can be implemented that will work to the benefit of the city."

Gates closed by saying he decided to run because "the status quo wasn't good enough" and that he knows what it takes to be successful. He also alleged that McGrath had been unavailable at her office and that the city is known as "Settlement City" among other attorneys after settling multiple excessive-force cases against local police.

"We're throwing in the towel far too often on litigation," he said. "I don't settle on cases like this."

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