Huntington Beach city clerk, attorney clash over proposed charter amendments

Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau addresses the City Council about proposed charter amendments.
Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau addresses the City Council about proposed charter amendments during Tuesday night’s meeting.
(James Carbone)
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The city clerk sits just a few feet from Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates on the City Council dais.

Both of these elected positions could be held by people with the same last name, Gates, in a couple of years. Not only that, but Gates and his wife, Kelly, could possibly even campaign together in 2026, if voters approve charter revisions.

The City Council moved forward with 11 possible charter revisions on Tuesday night, via straw poll voting. This step came after a council ad hoc committee was formed in June with the goal of getting the committee’s proposed revisions on the California primary ballot next March.


A couple of the revisions deal with the city clerk position, currently held by Robin Estanislau. She was appointed in 2016 after former City Clerk Joan Flynn retired, and has been twice supported by voters since then.

One of the possible revisions would change the election cycles for the clerk and treasurer to the gubernatorial cycle, which is the same cycle the city attorney follows. The other revision would modify clerk qualifications so that the position requires any four-year bachelor’s degree.

The city charter currently states the city clerk should hold a bachelor’s degree in business, public administration or a related field. The clerk also must hold a certification as a municipal clerk or obtain such certification within the first three years in office.

Members of the Huntington Beach City Council listen to public comments during Tuesday night's meeting.
(James Carbone)

Both revisions were moved forward with a 4-3 straw vote, like most of the other charter amendments being proposed. Mayor Tony Strickland, Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark and Councilmen Casey McKeon and Pat Burns, the council’s conservative majority, voted yes, while Councilman Dan Kalmick and Councilwomen Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton voted no.

Estanislau made the rare step of criticizing Michael Gates during public comments Tuesday night. She said that during a council meeting recess in June he told her that his wife was planning to run for clerk.

“He proceeded to fish for information on my plans for retirement,” Estanislau said. “I asked if he saw Kelly’s candidacy as a conflict of interest and he said no, suggesting that our positions as attorney and clerk did not interact much. I questioned Kelly’s qualifications, and he said she had run a few businesses.”

Estanislau added that her assistant clerk, Steven Aguilar, would be a most qualified candidate to replace her since he’s already served as clerk in another city, Eastvale.

“Our citizens rely on unbiased service from a trained and educated clerk,” Estanislau said. “The charter’s existing requirements are appropriate and should not be undermined to provide opportunity to unqualified candidates or politicians, for that matter. I am confident that our voting public understands misuse of power when they see it.”

Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau, flanked by Assistant City Clerk Steven Aguilar.
Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau, flanked by Assistant City Clerk Steven Aguilar, reads from the agenda during Tuesday night’s meeting.
(James Carbone)

Gates made his own public comments Tuesday night, after first declaring that Estanislau was “a great clerk.”

“I went to Robin as a courtesy to let [her] know that my wife was planning to run,” he said. “So many people have asked her to run ... I find it really discouraging, frankly, Robin, that our top elections official would come to the podium and shame and out somebody — yes, it’s my wife — when she hasn’t even decided to run. She hasn’t even pulled papers, yet you’re out here shaming her. It’s very anti-democratic and protectionist of you.”

Estanislau hold’s a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Ashford University. Gates would did not say what his wife’s college degree was in during a phone interview Wednesday but added it could arguably already be considered adequate under the current guidelines.

“If you look at what the city clerk’s duties are, they are to keep the official records of the city and to keep the official minutes of the meetings,” he said. “It’s not technical, it’s not a profession. They are clerk duties outlined in the charter. To say that the charter must require some super-high bar ... That’s just protectionism. That’s literally erecting barriers around incumbent clerks to protect their job.”

Local control over elections debated

Another hotly debated possible charter amendment was over a recommendation from the ad hoc committee that the city maintain local control over municipal elections in three areas: checking voter identifications, requiring at least 12 locations citywide for in-person voting, and having the city monitor ballot drop boxes.

People cheer in support of Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau as she speaks about the proposed charter amendments.
People cheer in support of Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau as she speaks about the proposed charter amendments on Tuesday at City Hall.
(James Carbone)

The item received another 4-3 straw vote, with the same council members voting for and against.

Estanislau was not a fan of this proposed amendment, either, calling it unnecessary during her public comments and citing the sterling reputation of the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

“The time and money required to meet the objectives of this amendment and incorporate so-called ‘home rules’ doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I wonder about liability associated with interfering in our citizens’ right to vote in a legitimate system designed and managed by election experts.”

McKeon said requiring a voter ID when voting was reasonable.

“The most sacred thing is voting,” McKeon said. “Yet when you go to the polling place and say, ‘Can I show you my ID?’ they go, ‘We don’t accept that.’ This is just bringing faith in our elections. Georgia instituted voter ID, and they had the highest turnout in their history.”

Kalmick responded that no one in Huntington Beach is questioning whether their vote has been counted.

“Who’s asking for this?” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out what problem we’re trying to solve.”

Gates said his office’s initial research shows that the changes being proposed are legal.

But Ann Ravel, a former chair of both the California Fair Political Practices Commission and Federal Elections Commission, raised questions about the proposed amendment.

She noted that Shasta County, in Northern California, is now hand-counting its votes. She said these actions are an indirect result of questions raised following the 2020 presidential election, in which President Trump alleged voter fraud that has not been substantiated.

Ravel cited students or less wealthy people as two groups less likely to have the voter IDs that Huntington Beach could request.

“It definitely is a form of voter suppression to require those IDs,” said Ravel, now an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley. “The electoral process in California is particularly good. The people who are working as the registrars and have staff that are working on the elections are really devoted public servants. To question those things makes no sense. It looks to others like they cannot trust their government, which I think is really a bad symbol for the public.”

The recommended charter amendments will come back to City Council at a meeting in September to consider any recommendations, budget appropriation for each ballot measure and all ballot materials.