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Huntington Beach City Council publicly releases report critical of city attorney

A woman holds a sign supporting Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates during Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
(Matt Szabo)

Months of bubbling tension between the Huntington Beach City Council and City Atty. Michael Gates over his role came to a head Tuesday night when the council publicly released an independent report critical of his office’s handling of an age discrimination case against him.

The City Council voted 6-1 to waive its attorney-client privilege and release the report, with Councilman Erik Peterson the dissenting vote.

Council members received copies of the report, issued by Craig Steele of Los Angeles-based law firm Richards, Watson & Gershon, on Tuesday afternoon, prior to that night’s meeting. Gates said he had wanted to go over the report with Steele before it was released publicly, but he wasn’t given the opportunity to do so until a recess in the meeting following Tuesday’s vote — and after it had been made public.

Immediately following the vote, City Clerk Robin Estanislau was issued the unusual task of attaching the 30-page report to the online agenda item — while the meeting was still going.

“This is not personal,” Councilwoman Kim Carr told Gates. “Our kids are friends. This wasn’t to do a witch hunt or anything. This is about the process ... I think our public, our residents deserve full transparency to see exactly what happened and why we are here today.”

But Gates called the discussion “an ambush” in a phone interview Wednesday, adding that the hiring of an outside lawyer to look into the city attorney’s handling of a complaint filed in 2019 by Neal Moore and Scott Field, was a violation of the city’s charter. Peterson has agreed and excused himself from several closed session meetings involving Steele’s probe.

“The [Steele] report is just evidence of the charter violation,” Gates said Wednesday. “The Huntington Beach City Charter designates me as the exclusive legal counsel for the city, period, full stop. There’s no caveat, there’s no exception. It is what it is.”

Gates and the city were defendants in the lawsuit, in which Moore, a former senior deputy city attorney and Field, a current senior deputy city attorney, alleged age discrimination in Gates’ office.

The suit was settled in May 2021 for $2.5 million, and city officials said it also cost about $1.5 million to fight the complaint.

City Atty. Michael Gates listens to public comments during a Huntington Beach City Council meeting on June 7.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The City Council has not always agreed with Gates’ reading of the City Charter. In April 2021, it voted to direct former City Manager Oliver Chi to retain RWG.

Though Steele made clear he found no evidence that Gates, the city attorney’s office nor hired firm Greenberg Gross guilty of violating the law, he also did not feel the case was handled particularly well.

“In my opinion, the lack of any independent supervision of this case was not reflective of good litigation management practices and created a situation where a majority of the members of the City Council now question whether over $1.5 million in city funds were well spent,” Steele wrote in the report.

The report’s summary is critical of Gates at some junctures, calling him “overly aggressive” of his assertion of the authority of his office.

But Steele, the city attorney for the cities of Monrovia and Seal Beach, also noted that members of the City Council are not fully trained and educated regarding the attorney-client relationship.

“One important way to achieve more clarity, in my view, is to replace conflicting, incomplete and ambiguous language in the City Charter regarding the roles and responsibilities of the city attorney and City Council in legal matters with more specific language and rules,” Steele wrote in his report.

The City Council followed that advice later in Tuesday night’s meeting, proposing a charter amendment that would, among other things, further define the relationship between the council and the city attorney. It would determine all legal matters to be controlled by the council and managed by the city attorney under council direction, as well as allow the council to contract other attorneys if the city attorney has a conflict of interest.

That was one of three different charter amendment measures the panel agreed to place on November’s ballot for Huntington Beach voters to consider.

Council members and Gates have butted heads often in the past couple of years. Gates is the only elected city attorney in Orange County and one of just 10 in the state. In other cities the position is an appointed one.

City staff will return with ballot measure language and materials at a later date, but the four amendments will be appearing on the November general ballot later this year.

Gates questioned the validity of Steele’s report, noting that he was not interviewed, nor were former City Council members who were in office when the age discrimination case was filed.

“The very thing you do when you investigate a grievance, you interview the subject,” Gates said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I was the subject, and I was never interviewed.”

Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton, herself a lawyer, responded to Gates that Steele’s work was not an investigation but rather an operational audit.

She noted that in a separate independent analysis, requested by Gates and paid for by the city, lawyer Calvin House mentioned interviewing just two people.

House’s independent analysis, submitted in October 2021, noted that the City Council approved the blended hourly rate of $495 per hour for Greenberg Gross when it executed an agreement with the firm in March 2019. He added that only the council has the authority to appropriate city money to pay legal fees.

“I do not think that it’s going to get us anywhere to argue over competing reports,” Bolton said. “The reason we have competing reports is that the charter is not clear about respective roles ... And it has eroded trust between the city attorney function and the City Council function. I don’t want that to continue to be the case.”

Gates responded, “Nothing erodes trust between our relationship more than hiring some attorney who gets paid to tell what you want to hear and drive a wedge between us.”

Gates cited a 1981 California Court of Appeal analysis of the City Charter (O’Connor vs. Hutton) that states that any attorneys hired are to help the existing city attorney and would be under his or her supervision.

“That case says, ‘except when there is a conflict with the city attorney’s office,’” Bolton responded.

During her remarks to close Tuesday’s meeting, Carr encouraged residents to read the report itself.

“Take a look at that document, and it will clarify why the charter review was so necessary,” Carr said. “It was something that we couldn’t talk about. Now, you guys will all understand that this was never personal. It’s been about policy and procedure ... This clash of personalities is just not indicative of our city.

“Now that you have more information, read it thoroughly and then come back.”

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