The Garden Grove City Council Tuesday night appointed Omar Sandoval, the assistant city attorney from its contract firm Woodruff, Spradlin and Smart, as acting city attorney Tuesday night.
City Attorney Thomas Nixon, who is employed by Woodruff and has been the city’s legal counsel since 2006, is retiring at the end of July, just one of several other city officials to leave the city in a period of major executive turnover.
Sandoval has worked for Garden Grove for more than 15 years and has served as assistant city attorney since 2005. He has been city attorney for San Juan Capistrano and the city of Hawaiian Gardens.
Mayor Bao Nguyen has tried to convince his fellow councilmembers to solicit new bids for a contract legal firm to potentially replace Woodruff, but has received little support.
Nguyen has expressed concerns about whether Nixon provided adequate legal counsel to the previous city council regarding a controversial employment settlement for former fire chief David Barlag, which is now the subject of an investigation by the Orange County District Attorney.
Sandoval’s appointment is just temporary, until the City Council receives a complete staff report detailing attorney services in neighboring cities.
In 2010, Nixon and Woodruff were sued by the city of Placentia for professional negligence and legal malpractice for failing to identify and prevent conflicts of interest and misconduct related to the city’s troubled OnTrac rail project.
The failed project resulted in felony charges for two former city officials and sunk the city deep into debt.
Woodruff argued that, in pursuing the lawsuit, Placentia was “seeking a scapegoat for its own poor decision making and mismanagement in a politically motivated lawsuit.”
The case was eventually dismissed in 2013.
City attorneys represent the interests of the city as an entity, not any individual councilmember or member of the staff.
In the event that an attorney learns about potential misconduct, they are obligated to report the issue up the city hierarchy, according to an ethical handbook from the League of California Cities.
If the top city officials fail to do something, the attorney is limited in what they can do.
“If they don’t do anything, you have two options: you can do nothing, or you can resign. But you know that’s not going to happen. They can’t blow the whistle,” said Michael Reiter, an attorney based in Redlands, CA and the former deputy city attorney for San Bernardino. “Attorney client privilege is paramount.”
Most Orange County cities contract with a legal firm for city attorney and other legal services. Municipal law firms like Woodruff typically employ a staff of attorneys who serve several client cities.
Huntington Beach is the only Orange County city with an elected city attorney.
The obligations of an elected city attorney are different from that of an appointed attorney.
“The elected city attorney is also beholden to the public…it gives them some flexibility because they are only elected every four years, barring a recall,” Reiter said. “You can be out at any time, as an appointed city attorney. They tend to be more cautious and sometimes don’t speak out about issues as loudly as they could.”
Elected attorneys can be more outspoken, said Reiter, pointing to the example of San Berardino’s former elected city attorney James Penman, who he worked for.
Penman characterized himself as a watchdog city attorney, seeking out corruption and using his office to investigate misconduct, Reiter said.
Opponents of Penman, who was recalled by voters in Nov. 2013, said he was too involved in policy decisions and caused a toxic politics in the city, according to the San Bernardino Sun newspaper.
“Attorneys don’t have the right tools to investigate. They’re not the auditor’s office — that’s more likely something that can be a watchdog than an attorney, Reiter said.
“Sometimes, [a council] can blame the city attorney. They’re in a bad position because of the way the law is. And all the attorney can do is tell the next council, ‘well, I was set up.’”
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