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Huntington Beach City Council to form ad hoc committee for possible charter revisions

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates adresses the City Council on June 1, 2021.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach is the only city in Orange County that elects its city attorney. But will it stay that way?

The Huntington Beach city charter revision committee has suggested moving the city attorney, clerk and treasurer to appointed positions, rather than elected. These were part of 18 final recommendations that the charter revision committee made during its May 12 meeting, to be presented to the City Council during its next meeting June 7.

The City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to set up an ad hoc committee, consisting of three council members, to look at the charter review committee’s recommendations and decide how to possibly package them to voters for the November ballot. Councilman Erik Peterson was the dissenting vote, arguing that the possible charter changes would be better discussed in a study session that could feature input from the public.

The ad hoc committee’s recommendations would need to come back to the full City Council for approval.

Many Surf City residents showed up to Tuesday night’s meeting to speak in support of City Atty. Michael Gates, who was first elected in 2014. But council members clarified that any change to the city charter first has to be approved at the ballot box.

“The ad hoc committee is not going to be tasked with doing anything but making recommendations,” Mayor Pro Tem Mike Posey said in a phone interview Wednesday. “They thought [Tuesday] night that we were going to vote to eliminate the city attorney’s position as an elected office. The only people that can do that are the voters. We can’t do that.”

The charter review committee voted 5-2 on its recommendations. Vice chair Charles Ray said during the committee’s April 26 meeting that he felt making the city attorney appointed was necessary to make the attorney-client relationship more efficient and less ambiguous. Board member Scott Miller added that he felt the role was technical, and shouldn’t be influenced by political leanings or votes.

Gates has been at odds with the current Council, particularly Posey, at times. He said in a phone interview Wednesday that though Huntington Beach is the only city in Orange County that elects its city attorney, the 10 cities statewide that do likewise include big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Sacramento and San Diego.

More people than not vote for a city attorney in California, he said.

“As a lifelong resident of Huntington Beach, I appreciate our current form of government,” he said. “I don’t know that a change like that makes it better. I think the benefit of having an elected city attorney is to the city itself, and to the community, because I can offer objective legal advice and legal opinions without concern for losing my job, essentially. But when it comes to these kinds of decisions, it’s ultimately up to the voter, and I do trust the voters in Huntington Beach. Frankly, I think the voters will probably stick with an elected city attorney.”

Robin Estanislau has been Huntington Beach’s city clerk since June 2016, when her predecessor Joan Flynn retired. She was elected in 2016 and 2020, running unopposed in the most recent election. Alisa Backstrom has served as city treasurer since 2011 and been reelected three times.

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