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Huntington Beach city attorney criticizes City Council after age bias case is settled

A man in a suit and tie stands before a microphone
Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates addresses the City Council on June 1, 2021.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

The Huntington Beach City Council meeting this week featured not only the sudden resignation of Mayor Pro Tem Tito Ortiz, but also a rare move by City Atty. Michael Gates, who spoke before the council during public comments.

The move came in the aftermath of the city settling a $2.5-million lawsuit that alleged age discrimination, naming Gates and the city itself as defendants.

Neal Moore, 75, a former senior deputy city attorney who resigned in 2018, was paid $1.5 million in the settlement dated May 21. Scott Field, 64, a current senior deputy city attorney, was paid $1 million. Officials said it cost the city about $1.5 million to fight the complaint, which originated in 2019.

In the lawsuit, Moore and Field said Gates had made a concerted effort to push out older and disabled attorneys since being elected in 2014. The lawsuit said Gates assigned older attorneys unachievable tasks and unrealistic deadlines, subjected them to unwarranted scrutiny and falsely accused them of poor performance, among other accusations.

As is standard with cases against the city, talks were done in closed session, unseen by the public. Council members Dan Kalmick and Mike Posey had introduced an item for Tuesday’s agenda that would require Gates to perform an analysis of the settlement agreement, including all costs incurred, but that item was pulled.

“Records show that City Council was consulted about the lawsuit in closed session 10 times over the course of two years,” Gates said during his public comments Tuesday. “While of course, I’m not going to reveal any closed session discussions ... clearly council conferred on this lawsuit repeatedly.”

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Gates criticized Kalmick and Posey for “bringing this lawsuit back to center stage for more public scrutiny,” and said it was a political stunt.

The settlement will be paid with insurance money, Gates said. Outside counsel was used for the case, he said, but was approved by the City Council. He is authorized to spend only $100,000 on outside attorneys without the council’s approval.

Kalmick said in a phone interview Wednesday that there was no war waged against Gates or the city attorney’s office. He noted he has been on the council for six months, not two years.

“Events have occurred, and I don’t have enough information about what’s happened in the past,” he said. “I’ve been briefed once on this, and it was like pulling teeth to get other information. We had outside counsel that was running this.... I asked to have the conversation in closed session, and it was not met kindly by Mr. Gates, to say the least.

“I hadn’t seen the settlement, and the settlement was agreed to. I don’t know the process because no one’s explained it to me, and I’ve asked.... I’ve been trying to understand better how this lawsuit was resolved, and how we spent $1.55 million to defend a discrimination case that we’re never getting back. I’m trying to get to the crux of why we spent so much money on this and why there wasn’t an offer to settle early on, especially since our insurance company picked up the tab for the $2.5-million settlement.”

Later in the meeting, Gates again clashed with council members over the size of his office in discussions over the budget. Council members including Kalmick and Mayor Kim Carr discussed taking away one of Gates’ two chief assistant city attorneys to help fund a new deputy director of homelessness and behavioral services position.

One of the chief assistant city attorneys left about six months ago, Carr said, and the position has not been filled.

“We have a department that has a total of 11 people but three managers,” Carr said. “My concern is that we have this org chart that really doesn’t work.... I’ve been opposed to having two chief assistant city attorneys since 2019, so I think I’ve been very consistent here.”

After discussion, it was decided that one of the jobs would instead be downgraded to a senior trial attorney position as opposed to removed entirely, saving the city about $14,000 a year.

Gates said he has already streamlined his office from as many as 16 employees when he was elected to the current total of 11.

“It feels like a full assault on what we’re doing in the city attorney’s office,” Gates said Wednesday. “We do fantastic work, and we’ve really turned the office around over the course of the last six years.... These attacks by the council are meritless and purely political. Any attempt to undermine what we’re doing or take resources away is nonsensical, and it doesn’t serve the public.”

Szabo writes for Times Community News.


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