Huntington Beach residents could soon decide if they want to keep electing their city attorney, city clerk and treasurer – or if they would want all three positions to be appointed by their city council members.
On Tuesday, a majority of HB’s Charter Review Committee members recommended city council members put the switch question on the ballot this November.
That means city voters could choose to either make the switch to appointed positions or keep the power to vote the three positions in.
Committee members Casey McKeon and Dianne Thompson voted against the recommendation.
“For the simple principle of democracy,” said McKeon, a city council candidate, in a Wednesday interview explaining his vote. “I just don’t know why you would want to remove the voters and residents input in their democratically elected local government by removing their votes.”
Charles Ray and Damon Mircheff, representatives for Council members Mike Posey and Natalie Moser on the committee, proposed shifting away from electing the three positions, according to the charter revision tracking document.
Mircheff, the committee’s chair, said in an email response Wednesday part of the reason for recommending the positions be appointed is that it will get rid of partisan campaigning and broaden the candidate pool.
“We gathered input from many people, including the City Clerk, Treasurer and Attorney and ultimately determined that the positions are technical and non-partisan positions that are becoming more complex as the City grows over time,” he said in the email.
“Making the positions appointed allows for a broader pool of highly qualified candidates (similar to the appointment of the City Manager, Fire and Police Chiefs) and allows the City to select the most qualified candidate, rather than an election where the popular candidate may or may not be as qualified,” he continued.
Moser and Posey did not return requests for comment.
All three of those positions are traditionally appointed in other cities, but have been elected positions in Huntington Beach for years.
“There’s not a lot of us out there that have these positions elected, but I really see it as a benefit,” said City Councilman Erik Peterson in a phone interview Wednesday. “People like having as much representation as they can. They like voting on their representatives and I think (the changes will) probably fail.”
The most controversial seat being considered taken out of the running is the city attorney.
Michael Gates has served as Huntington Beach’s city attorney since 2014 and is Orange County’s only elected city attorney, while the rest are appointed by their respective city council members and serve at the pleasure of the council.
Gates called the commission “highly political,” in a Wednesday phone interview.
“It’s stacked with attorneys who I think may just want the business for themselves, frankly, because their recommendation is contrary to what the people have always wanted in Huntington Beach,” he said.
Gates said his office has had many legal victories pointing to a recent battle with the state when a California Superior Court judge ruled the state’s department of finance had to pay at least $5.2 million in redevelopment loan reimbursements to the city.
“We’ll see how it plays out at the ballot box, but the recommendation doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Gates has frequently butted heads with the council majority over the past several years, with tensions getting so bad the council voted to hire their own outside counsel last December rather than continue consulting with Gates.
“During the past several years, there have been multiple circumstances where the City Council has been uncomfortable with the quality and accuracy of the legal advice provided by the City Attorney,” wrote Councilmembers Mike Posey, Dan Kalmick and Barbara Delglaize in a memo published on the city’s website.
Gates shot back, saying that any outside counsel would be required to work under him as outlined in the city charter.
“This is the form of government the people of Huntington Beach have chosen. By our charter, the people elected to choose the city’s legal counsel,” Gates wrote. “If you do not like it, locate to a city that has a form of government more to your liking, or, propose such a vote to the people of Huntington Beach for a change.”
Now, the city council is poised to do exactly that.
Gates acknowledged Wednesday that he and council members haven’t always seen eye to eye.
“But that has not hindered my ability to faithfully execute my duties as the attorney for the city. Individuals can have differences. Individuals can even have conflicts. But I’ve always done a tremendous job for the city itself,” he said.
Peterson said in a phone interview Tuesday that politics should be left out of the three positions and believes the recommendation is targeting Gates.
“I think they’re going after him,” he said.
In his Wednesday, Mircheff pushed back against criticism that the recommendation was political and that it targeted Gates.
“In reviewing the Charter from start to finish, the Committee gathered input from the public, City staff and elected officials, and each Committee member was encouraged and able to make recommendations to potentially update provisions that were out of date, to clarify ambiguity, or make the Charter more effective. The Charter review process is quite democratic,” he wrote, noting that voters will have the final say.
Robin Estanislau, Huntington Beach’s city clerk, said she can see the benefits of both sides.
“Having an appointed clerk really widens the pool of talent,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “On the other hand, elected clerks, I think working for the people gain a sense of public trust.”
Estanislau said it also allows the city clerk to stand their ground if they disagree or face political pressure from the city council or city manager.
“At the end of the day, the voters should decide,” she said, adding she will respect whatever the voters choose come November. “I think it’s up to them, because ultimately, the city clerk really does work for the citizens.”
The charter review committee that made the recommendations is made up of Huntington Beach residents appointed by city council members.
The committee began working last August after the resignation of Councilman Tito Ortiz and the subsequent appointment of Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton to replace him, a decision that set off weeks of debate amid a deadlocked council.
Following Bolton’s appointment, the council voted 6-0, with Peterson absent, to appoint a citizen’s committee that would revise the city charter and fix problems in that appointment process.
But now, the committee is recommending taking the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer jobs off the ballot, changing them to appointed positions that councilmembers would directly control.
If the city council approves the revisions to the charter, voters will have the final say in November.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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