Huntington Beach city attorney race features incumbent Michael Gates — and the man who sued him
Michael Gates has sued the state of California. He’s had very public squabbles with Huntington Beach City Council members over the last couple of years regarding his role.
Now, to keep his job, the city attorney has to beat a challenger who sued him.
Welcome to Surf City, where political storylines with juicy plots are the norm. And so it will go again this November.
Gates, 47, is running for a third term. He’s opposed by Scott Field. Both filed their paperwork last week and were officially certified for the ballot.
Field, a longtime assistant city attorney, with Neal Moore, a former deputy city attorney, filed an age discrimination suit against Gates and the city in 2019. It was settled last year for a total of $2.5 million. The city also spent $1.5 million fighting the case.
Field, now 66, no longer works for the city, but he’s not content sitting on the sidelines.
Gates was first elected city attorney in 2014, beating incumbent Jennifer McGrath by nearly 14 points. He ran unopposed in 2018, after potential challenger Jerold Friedman was disqualified because his degree wasn’t from a law school accredited by the American Bar Assn.
Now Gates, a Republican, finds himself in a contested election to retain his seat. He said his initial reaction was surprise when Field, a Democrat, decided to run.
“For two years, the city had viewed it as a frivolous lawsuit, and suddenly [Field] gets a settlement at the 11th hour,” Gates said. “So, sort of taking advantage of the process, he gets a ton of money from the city, which is taxpayer money. Now he’s trying to run against a city attorney that really, by any measure, has community support. We’ve done a good job. I don’t really have any issues with results.
“It’s peculiar. It’s very dramatic, but whether there’s any real substance to it? I think it’s light on substance, high on drama.”
Both candidates are longtime Huntington Beach residents. Gates graduated from Marina High and lives in Huntington Beach with his wife and five children. Also married, Field has lived in the city since 1989 and started working for the city attorney’s office six years later. He and his wife are the parents of two adult children who are graduates of Huntington Beach High.
Field said he was demoted twice after Gates took over.
“He sought to clean house,” Field said. “That would be safe to say. I think he just wanted everybody gone.”
Field said he felt compelled to run after he read a report, commissioned by the City Council, that was critical of the city’s handling of his own lawsuit. The 69-page report by Craig Steele of the Richards, Watson & Gershon firm was released to the public last month.
The report found no evidence that Gates or members of his staff had broken the law, but Steele did find that Gates practiced an “overly aggressive assertion of the authority of his office.”
It also recommended changes to the city charter, so that the city attorney’s role could be more clearly defined. Though Gates said he recused himself from the beginning, the report alleges that he sat in on numerous closed session meetings and blurred the line between the city’s interests and his own.
Gates said he only participated in the lawsuit as a defendant, which he was entitled to do.
“I can tell you that this job is hard enough,” he said. “Having the council members then turn around and accuse you of wrongdoing, especially on a false basis, is particularly aggravating. If they would leave me alone, life would be good. I never pick these fights, I’m never the antagonist, but I will respond if I’m pushed. The community deserves to hear the truth about what’s going on, rather than just hearing a bunch of false charges coming out of a few of the council members’ mouths.”
Yet, the constant rift between Gates and the council is troublesome to some, including Field.
“Ethically, every attorney has a duty to represent their client and listen to their client and implement what their client wants to do, within the law.” Field said. “When you have a corporate body, it’s run by the City Council, and that’s your client. But [Gates] doesn’t see it that way. He actually acts adversely to his client. That’s not being an attorney. He’s in constant conflict with the City Council … and he’s all about self-aggrandizement. He just wants to make himself a bigger person.”
Recommendations to change the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer positions from elected to appointed were all on the table but ultimately shelved for the November election.
Gates said some members of the City Council have held personal grudges with him. Last December, Mayor Barbara Delgleize, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Posey and Councilman Dan Kalmick introduced an agenda item that would allow the council to select and procure the services of an outside legal firm.
A month earlier, Gates had taken to the dais during public comments to defend his record. In an interview at the time, Posey called it a “campaign speech” designed to try to embarrass the City Council.
Now a measure on the ballot for voters in November could potentially add a new section to the charter that more clearly defines the relationship between the city attorney and the council.
“I think the politics of it all, if you look at it from a 30,000-foot level, I have a very good relationship with the community because I’m in constant contact with the taxpayers and the voters and the residents of Huntington Beach,” Gates said. “City Council members have taken exception to that over and over and over. They’ve even pled with me to stop posting on Facebook and stop making public comments, and that’s just something I refuse to do. As part of my job as an elected official, it’s part of my duty to have a relationship with the voters, the residents.”
He added that he believes council members want him to behave like city attorneys in neighboring cities, but they are appointed to their positions, not elected.
“I’m doing no different than any other elected city attorney … but they simply don’t like my relationship with the public,” he said. “They would prefer to have an attorney working directly with the City Council who stays more low-profile and quiet.”
Field, who was previously the city attorney in Mission Viejo and Temecula before coming to Huntington Beach, said he wouldn’t mind Surf City having a more low-profile city attorney and is ready to take that role.
“If I was elected, I would follow the ethics of my profession,” he said. “When four people out of seven vote for something, I’m going to help them implement whatever that is, within the law. I’m going to follow their direction. It would be like if you go see a doctor and he tells you, ‘I know everyone says I should do A-B-C, but I’m going to do X-Y-Z. And you say, ‘No, I want you to do this proper procedure. I don’t want you to experiment on me.’
“A doctor has a relationship with that patient, and that’s sacred. Frankly, attorneys are the same way. We have a relationship with our client. Our job is not to do what we want, it’s to help the client achieve his or her goals.”
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