Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates can continue clamping down on illegal in-home businesses throughout the city, but without the extra support from three new employees he requested.
On a 5-2 vote Monday night, the City Council decided to consider Gates’ proposal during the city’s annual budget process in 2019. Until then, Gates will rely on his current team and its partnership with the Orange County district attorney’s office to target businesses operating illegally, such as short-term rentals, massage parlors and sober-living homes.
Gates proposed adding one new attorney, a part-time expert consultant and a part-time investigator to help build cases and conduct field investigations.
The council’s hour-long discussion showed hesitance from some members to bolster Gates’ team when other departments also are short-staffed. They suggested waiting to see how legal action filed last month against five operations turns out.
“While I appreciate you wanting to have more legal support in your department, unless we do code enforcement, you’ll have a tough time [with] what you’re trying to do,” Councilwoman Barbara Delgleize told Gates. “In the meantime, you said you have five cases pending … but can we see how you do with these?”
Gates reminded the council that his proposal was in response to council members Erik Peterson and Lyn Semeta’s request for a plan to address illegal businesses because the city receives a lot of quality-of-life complaints from residents, inundating code enforcement officers.
Peterson and Semeta cast the dissenting votes Monday night.
Gates said it took 720 hours of in-house attorney time on a part-time basis — excluding code enforcement — to shut down 12 illegal marijuana dispensaries.
The city recovered more than $475,000 in attorneys fees, penalties and fines after shutting those down, Gates said. It is in the process of recovering about an additional $900,000, he added.
Councilwoman Jill Hardy asked Gates how likely it is for a business to pay its fees and fines.
Gates called it a “mixed bag” but said a court order could help “lean on its properties or assets.”
Several residents who use their homes as short-term rentals urged the council Monday to vote against Gates’ proposal. They asked the council to consider legalizing their businesses.
Short-term vacation rentals — typically residences rented out for 30 days or less — aren’t allowed in Surf City, but many are listed on online rental sites.
In 2017, code enforcement received about 110 complaints about short-term rentals and has received more than 50 this year, according to Gates. About 700 such businesses are estimated to be operating illegally, he said.
Peterson said some short-term rentals that pop up during the summer have a “tremendous impact on neighborhoods.”
Delgleize and Hardy said the conversation about legalizing short-term rentals is getting louder and that the council should address it.
But “right now they’re illegal, so they’re on the table,” Gates told the council. “We can’t pick and choose.”
If the council is interested in legalizing the rentals, Gates suggested, it should make the discussion a priority.
“We don’t ignore or deny the law simply because council decided to push this to a budget process,” he said.
In other business Monday, the council continued a proposal to increase citywide fees, adjust parking meter rates and modify parking citations to help generate revenue.
The council unanimously requested more information from city staff before making a decision. The proposal will be revisited during a study session in December.