HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.—After a lengthy public discussion on an agenda item that sought to go around Huntington Beach’s elected city attorney and hire outside legal help, the city council voted Dec. 21 to continue the discussion in a closed session in January.
The motion, brought forward by Mayor Barbara Delgleize, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Posey, and Councilman Dan Kalmick, cited legal disagreements with elected city attorney Michael Gates.
However, Gates claimed in an open Dec. 16 letter to have a stellar record of winning every legal battle in the five-year-long Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach case, saving taxpayers over $150 million, and over 90 percent case win rate over his term.
Gates also told The Epoch Times last week that the move to hire outside legal help without his explicit authorization as chief legal officer of the city is illegal per the city’s charter, which is essentially its constitution.
During the hotly contested agenda item, councilmembers said the charter can be interpreted in different ways.
“We need legal advice and substantive expertise to help us make informed decisions about what’s best for the city,” Mayor Delgleize said. “Frequently, we can depend on the city attorney and his staff to provide that service. But sometimes we cannot.
“I believe that we can define circumstances under which the city council can seek a second opinion or specialized legal advice, without approval of the city attorney,” she said.
According to Gates, the city’s charter on the matter is as clear-cut as it is.
The charter states that the city attorney has the power to “represent and appear for the City in any or all actions or proceedings in which the City is concerned,” “prepare any and all proposed ordinances and City Council resolutions and amendments thereto,” “perform such legal functions and duties incident to the execution of the foregoing powers as may be necessary,” and “provide advice related to compliance with the City Charter to all elected and appointed officials of the City.”
Gates also cited a California Court of Appeal response stating that while the city council can hire other attorneys, they cannot discharge the city attorney of his or her duties, and any attorney hired by the city council is under the city attorney’s full supervision and has no authority to act independently.
The city charter also states that any dispute about the interpretation of the charter is left solely up to the city attorney to interpret, according to Gates.
“During discussion, council members were scrutinizing the charter and the two provisions that to them appear to be inconsistent,” Gates told The Epoch Times. “And I think it cannot be lost that under the charter itself, which is the direction of the people of Huntington Beach, I alone have the authority and the duty to interpret the charter. So it’s up to me to say if there’s a conflict or not.”
Gates said the voters have expressed during the meeting that the city attorney and the city council should work together.
“We’re stuck together. That’s the way the charter frames it,” Gates said during the council meeting. “That’s what the voters have decided … And as much as you might not prefer my style, or my presentation, or my results, I may not prefer yours. I may want to select the mayor, maybe that’s my preference, but I don’t get to because the charter and all of our other rules have outlined how this all works.”
Speaking to The Epoch Times, Gates noted that he has always followed the council’s direction, but he cannot violate the charter.
“I represent the city, and I follow [the city council’s] direction, so long as it’s lawful. Once [the city] council goes beyond the law, I cannot follow that direction,” he said. “When council separates from any fiduciary duty to the city and wants to go off beyond the law, I can’t follow them.”
The majority of public commenters at the meeting spoke in support of Gates.
The council eventually voted 7–0 to continue the discussion of the item in a closed session next month, though Gates said he will not let it happen.
“They can work with me to get additional legal resources on matters, but they will not, under any circumstances, be able to retain outside counsel to support them and to report directly to them.”