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Huntington Beach City Council moves forward with modified recommendations related to age discrimination case

Michael Gates, left, and Scott Field.
Michael Gates, left, is the incumbent Huntington Beach city attorney being challenged by Scott Field, right, whose age discrimination case against Gates and the city was settled last year for $1.5 million.
(Scott Smeltzer and Kevin Chang / Staff Photographers)

Tension simmered in the Huntington Beach City Council chambers Tuesday night as the panel again clashed with City Atty. Michael Gates.

Council members voted 5-1-1 to approve the last agenda item of their regular meeting, the implementation of three recommendations made by a Richards, Watson & Gershon law firm report following the city’s settling of a $2.5-million age discrimination case last year.

Councilman Erik Peterson had the sole dissenting vote, while Mayor Pro Tem Mike Posey was absent.

The action requires the city attorney’s office to provide training to the City Council regarding its members’ respective roles as attorney and client, as well as on the resources of the city attorney’s office.

The city attorney will also be responsible for commissioning independent counsel to determine if the city should take action against former employee Brian Williams, who is implicated in the Richards, Watson & Gershon report that was released July 6 as potentially violating two state codes related to conflict of interest.

Additionally, the City Council will evaluate the possibility of seeking reimbursement for payments made to Greenberg Gross following Williams’ hiring by the firm in January 2021, in the middle of the age discrimination case.

The City Council voted to recuse the city attorney’s office from the proceedings after the hiring of the independent counsel. Councilwoman Kim Carr added an amendment requiring the scope of the work be dictated by City Manager Al Zelinka, not Gates.

City staff’s initial recommendation was that Zelinka and Gates would work together throughout the process.

“I just want to make sure that nobody can make the allegation that there’s any partiality there,” Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton said. “I just don’t want to go down this path again. We’re still dealing with a review of what happened within the office. It’s not personal to you,” she said to Gates, “but I think that the best practice is that the city attorney’s office be recused.”

Mayor Barbara Delgleize was even more direct.

“Suppose something happens and it infers you,” she said, addressing Gates. “Then what do we do?”

Gates responded that he didn’t want it intoned that he was responsible for any wrongdoing.

“None of these [recommendations] present a conflict of interest,” he said. “I haven’t spoken with Mr. Williams since he resigned ... the fact that I knew him in the past doesn’t present a conflict of interest.”

Michael Gates is photographed at his home in Huntington Beach on Aug. 17.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Williams left the city attorney’s office in December 2020 during the age-discrimination case to work for Greenberg Gross — the firm the office had hired to work on the case — and continued working on the case there.

Lawyer Craig Steele, the city attorney for Seal Beach and Monrovia who wrote the RWG report, found potential conflict in that action.

“Mr. Williams’ decision to negotiate for employment with Greenberg Gross while he was a public official, and while Greenberg Gross was lawyer for a party in which Mr. Williams was participating personally and substantially as the city’s lawyer, raises the possibility that he also violated California Rule of Professional Conduct 1-11,” Steele wrote.

At the direction of the council, Steele submitted a still-pending inquiry to the California Fair Political Practices Commission for an investigation of Williams’ actions.

Williams responded in an email to the Daily Pilot on Wednesday.

“This politically driven effort by the City Council to question the legitimacy of my work is disheartening, to say the least,” he said. “Huntington Beach is my hometown. It was a privilege to represent the city and its many employees in numerous, high-profile lawsuits. Throughout my tenure at the city, and then at Greenberg Gross, I always acted with the best interests of the city in mind. My work on the lawsuit at issue was conducted with full transparency, and performed at the express direction of those in charge.”

Gates, meanwhile, had other fish to fry during public comments at Tuesday’s meeting. His challenger for the city attorney seat this November, Scott Field, was one of the speakers. Field and Neal Moore are the two former lawyers in Gates’ office who sued him and the city, alleging age discrimination.

Field said during public comments that he was running because of “the gross corruption and mismanagement” revealed in the report, tying Gates to Williams’ alleged actions.

Another speaker was Anaheim Assistant City Atty. Leonie Mulvihill, who served as senior deputy city attorney in Huntington Beach from 2001 to 2009 before becoming Newport Beach’s assistant city attorney from 2009 to 2017. Mulvihill said she had filed a complaint with the California State Bar against Gates.

“I am struck by the fact that the City Council’s report has been assailed by the city attorney by way of multiple statements blasted on social media,” Mulvihill said. “The ensuing commentary, which has been encouraged by the city attorney, in my opinion has become a distraction to the election this year, especially as to the applications of the state bar rules of professional conduct, as described in the report ... These rules of professional conduct address conflicts of interest, special conflicts of interest that apply to government officials and the special rules that apply to organizations as clients.”

Gates noted in an interview Wednesday that Mulvihill was on the Huntington Beach charter revision committee this year and voted to change the city attorney position from an elected to an appointed one.

“It doesn’t surprise me that she’s filing a false claim with the state Bar,” he said. “It’s just more drama which is going to prove to exonerate me again. She and Scott Field both made wild accusations against me that do not appear in the report ... Because it’s campaign season, the speakers are making these wild accusations against me.”

In his report, Steele said he found no evidence that Gates, the city attorney’s office nor Greenberg Gross had broken the law in handling the age-discrimination case. Yet, he was not complimentary of Gates’ actions in the case, calling it “unusual” that the city attorney’s office managed the outside counsel in the case, essentially, against itself.

“Although the city attorney has said he ‘abstained’ from the litigation as city attorney, he participated directly in ways ... that blurred the important line between his personal interests as an individual defendant in a lawsuit and the city’s interests as its chief legal officer,” Steele wrote.

Gates said the comments of Field and Mulvihill are defamatory and he is going to be speaking with an attorney.

“These false statements seek to harm my professional legal reputation,” he said. “This is beyond politics. This is injuring somebody’s ability to provide for their family ... Scott Field used the word ‘corruption’ and the report, even though it tried to drag me through the mud at times, it ended up saying I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t break any laws. It said things could have been handled better, but it did not find any wrongdoing.”

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