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Deputy D.A. Seeks to Unseat Incumbent : City Attorney Defends Her Record

Times Staff Writer

Huntington Beach City Atty. Gail Hutton says she has long admired the skill of the organist at her church, Ted Johnson. But in recent months she has heard just about enough of him.

Johnson, who is an Orange County deputy district attorney, is challenging Hutton in Tuesday’s city attorney race. And he isn’t using Sunday school language.

Johnson has accused her of mismanagement, malfeasance and misuse of her office for political purposes. He claims “her office is in chaos,” despite what he considers “a lot of talent” among the eight attorneys who work for her.

But Hutton, a two-term incumbent and the only female city attorney in California, says such attacks go with the territory.

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“You always hear these things in an election year,” Hutton said. “I’ve got a record I’m proud of, and if I’ve upset a few people, it’s only because you have to sometimes to do the job right.”

Elects Instead of Appoints

Huntington Beach is the only one of Orange County’s 26 cities that elects its city attorney instead of appointing one.

Hutton has held the office since she defeated Donald Bonfa in 1978. She was easily reelected in 1982 in a race against Bonfa and local attorney Jerome M. Bame.

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Hutton readily admits that it’s hard not to make a few enemies after eight years in office. Some of her detractors are on the City Council.

“There is always going to be a certain amount of friction between the council and the city attorney because this is an elected job,” Hutton said. She added that occasionally there is such friction with others at City Hall.

Some of that has surfaced just before the election, thanks to Johnson’s tenacity in persuading the council to make public a consultant’s report written last year on Hutton’s office. It was part of a series of reviews of all city departments.

While the report has favorable things to say about the city attorney’s office, it also quotes many people who were highly critical of Hutton.

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“Most interviewees rated performance (by the city attorney) as poor due to the serious lack of communication (by the city attorney) with user departments, and inordinate time delays in getting legal opinions and contract approvals,” the report states.

It also recommended better training for support staff and better supervision of their jobs.

“I think it’s clear from this report that she is a poor manager,” Johnson said.

Hutton doesn’t hide her anger at Johnson’s comments.

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Many of the people interviewed were either department heads she had angered or disgruntled former employees, Hutton said. She accused them of stating “glittering generalities” about her work.

‘Elected to Protect City’

In several instances, she said, she had to disagree with requests from department heads because they left the city legally unprotected.

“A department head sometimes might think I’m dragging my feet, but I’m the one elected to protect the city,” she said.

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Hutton also said she has carried out some of the report’s recommendations and that the report actually helped her point out to the council the need for better computer equipment for her staff.

Hutton insists the bottom line in the report is favorable. In the section titled “Service to Clients,” the report states: “The city attorney’s office is generally perceived by its clients as producing quality work.”

Hutton, 49, began her career as a schoolteacher before entering law school in the early ‘70s. She briefly went into private practice in Santa Ana before working for the Santa Ana city attorney’s office for five years. Because she lived in Huntington Beach, she said, she decided to run for city attorney in 1978.

“I have a lot of experience in municipal law,” she said. “Ted Johnson has none. Frankly, he’s simply a misdemeanor prosecutor with great ambitions.”

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Johnson counters that he will stack his legal experience against Hutton’s anytime.

“The job of the city attorney is to manage the staff of legal experts,” he said. “And it’s management where she has a poor record.”

Johnson, 41, was in private practice in Santa Ana before joining the Orange County district attorney’s office in 1975. He worked in retail management before he became a lawyer.


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