Newport attorney is a 'working machine'

This might not have been the best time to take up a new sport.

Aaron Harp started tagging along with his wife, an avid runner, just before he began his post as Newport Beach's attorney.

Now he's spending 12-hour days in back-to-back meetings, and barely making it home in time to see his two young children.

But Harp and his colleagues say this is nothing new. The 38-year-old works until all the details are done. It's an ethic, some say, that may compensate for his relative youth in this typically career-topping position.

"Every time I work for governments, I work pretty much as hard as I did in private practice," said Harp, who has alternated between firms representing Southern California cities and cities themselves.

At his first council meeting Tuesday, his seven-o'clock shadow showed his hours of preparation. Usually, Harp is a bundle of energy with boyish looks. Tall, he wears wire-rimmed glasses and finely parts his hair. He carries a pen in his breast pocket.

Harp first worked in-house for Newport in 2005, and spent four years as assistant city attorney. In 2009 he left for Anaheim, where he headed the civil division as a senior attorney. With then-Newport City Attorney David Hunt announcing his departure in June, the City Council came calling.

"He has big shoes to fill," said City Manager Dave Kiff, "but because he's been here before I don't have any question he can do that, despite his youthfulness."

"He's a sharp guy," Kiff added.

Officials were looking for someone to tame a ballooning budget — in the two and a half years that Hunt was in the job, the city attorney's office budget swelled by 55%. Much of that was attributed to hiring outside counsel to defend the city's controversial group rehabilitation homes ordinance.

"We were looking for a manager who has a track record for spending restraint," said Councilwoman Leslie Daigle.

Harp restructured his division in Anaheim, bringing all work in-house and eliminating about three positions. While Anaheim is large enough to justify a full in-house staff, Newport has to contract out some duties. Harp managed a $2.8-million budget at the Anaheim civil division; Newport's complete attorney budget is about $2.3 million.

On a recent morning, Harp wore a stylish plaid dress shirt and khaki pants for a day in the office, while in more public settings he sports a dark suit.

Harp could be tasked with the serious job of slashing some attorneys from Newport's payroll. Because of budget constraints, the council asked Hunt, and now Harp, to consider outsourcing more work. Hunt's analysis from June showed that by outsourcing the work of two to three attorneys, the city could save between $357,000 and $566,000 annually, although contracting costs could counterbalance some savings.

"You don't ever want to have too many attorneys," Harp said over a chorizo and eggs breakfast.

If he does decide to trim some fat and contract out, Harp has some close ties to prominent firms in public law. He was an associate with Burke, Williams and Sorensen LLP, then an associate and later a partner with the law firm of Aleshire and Wynder LLP. Both offer the gamut of municipal representation from election procedures to land-use and zoning.

At Aleshire, Harp specialized in the public contracting code.

"He was my go-to guy" for public works disputes, said William Wynder, who is the contract city attorney for the cities of Carson and Cypress, and a partner in the firm.

But Harp said he prefers working in one city exclusively, especially on public works infrastructure projects, because he gets the "feeling you're doing some good in a community."

Also, Harp wanted to spend more time with his family, Wynder said, and left to work in-house for Newport. Often, the pressure to bill more hours at a law firm keeps attorneys grinding away at all hours.

As an assistant Scout master for his son's Boy Scout troop, Harp leads hikes into the Cleveland National Forest, near his Rancho Santa Margarita home. He and his wife have a 9-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.

"Once he went in-house," Wynder said, "I figured it would just be a matter of time until he would be an in-house city attorney."

That ascent, like some of his other major life events, happened early. Harp's father died when he was a freshman in high school. He graduated San Diego State University at 20 and the University of San Diego law school at 23. Now, he's the lead attorney for a wealthy, sunny beach city.

"He's got the eye for the detail and is willing to put in the time to be sure the work product is top-flight," Wynder said. "He's a working machine."

Twitter: @mreicher

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World