An Orange County Superior Court judge on Tuesday dismissed a pair of attorneys representing Mary Ann Gaido in her lawsuit against the city of Irvine, ruling that the lawyers have a conflict of interest in the case because they recently worked for the City Council.
The lawsuit, filed last month by Gaido, the third-highest vote-getter in the City Council election in June, claims she should be seated immediately to fill the unexpired council term of Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan, who took office July 20.
Judge Eileen Moore said Gaido’s attorneys, Stephen Coontz and Franklin J. Lunding, have a conflict of interest because their client’s suit is based on the same election laws that the City Council hired them to review in March. The State Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct prevent an attorney from presenting a case that could be adverse to a former client.
Gaido called the action “a minor detour” in the lawsuit.
Anticipating the loss of Coontz and Lunding, Gaido last week hired Irvine attorney Christopher Mears to work separately on the suit, which remains scheduled for an Aug. 31 hearing. The suit seeks to overturn a July 24 council decision to hold a special election in November to fill Sheridan’s vacant council seat.
City Atty. John L. Fellows said documents filed up until now by Coontz and Lunding remain valid so as not to delay the hearing date beyond the registrar of voters’ Aug. 31 printing deadline for the November ballot. The outcome of the suit could determine whether the special election appears on the ballot.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Moore also invalidated a July 17 vote by the City Council to waive any potential conflict of interest with the two attorneys, saying the meeting violated the Ralph M. Brown Act. That vote was made during an emergency council session called by then-Mayor Larry Agran--a move Sheridan criticized as a last-minute tactic to undermine the council-elect.
Fellows argued that the special meeting agenda did not specify that the council would be considering a conflict-of-interest waiver for Coontz and Lunding. The agenda stated only that the council would consider the relationship of the city to the two attorneys, Fellows said.
Last week, Moore denied a motion by Fellows to dismiss Gaido’s suit because of the conflict of interest. Although More declared a conflict existed, she refused to dismiss Coontz and Lunding then because she needed more information on the July 17 council vote.
Gaido garnered 11,092 votes in the June 5 council election, behind councilmen William A. (Art) Bloomer and Barry J. Hammond. She ran on a slate with Agran and incumbent Councilman Cameron Cosgrove.