Huntington Beach voters will get a chance to make a series of changes to Surf City’s charter this November, including defining the relationship between City Council members and the city attorney. 

Voters will still get to elect their city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer – a rarity in Orange County.

They will, however, decide on changes to the charter’s language as well as a new section that would allow elected city officials to seek outside legal representation in certain circumstances. 

The Huntington Beach City Council voted 6-1 last week to add three measures to the November ballot regarding the city charter – Surf City’s governing document. Councilman Erik Peterson was the dissenting vote.

“The voters asked us to review the Charter, the voters asked us to convene a Charter Review Commission so we’re delivering on the voters’ vote from 12 years ago,” said Councilman Mike Posey at last week’s city council meeting.

Under the current city charter, the city council is expected to decide if they want to convene a charter review committee to propose changes no less than every 10 years. 

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The most controversial amendment up for a vote in November is a new proposed section to the charter that would define the attorney-client privilege between the city attorney and the city council.

If approved by voters, the charter amendment would add a new section to city law that states the city council has all control over litigation and legal business in the city and allows them to hire outside legal counsel in cases that constitute a conflict of interest for the city attorney.

The decision to add the amendment to the ballot came during the same meeting city council members decided to publicly release a report they commissioned from an outside investigator that alleges City Attorney Michael Gates violated the city’s conflict of interest ethics in an employee lawsuit that ultimately cost taxpayers $1.5 million.

Gates commissioned his own report that disputed those claims and pushed back against the council majority at last week’s meeting who argued that releasing the report was important for transparency.

“Nothing erodes trust between our relationship more than hiring some attorney who gets paid to tell what you want to hear and drive a wedge between us,” Gates said at last week’s meeting.

He also criticized the city council’s report.

“When an advocate is writing a report like this, the findings are not reliable,” Gates said in a Wednesday phone interview. “I’m open to criticism at any time, but it has to be well founded, reliable criticism. It can’t be made up without proper investigation.” 

[Read: Huntington Beach City Council and Elected Attorney Continue Clashing Over Employee Lawsuit]

Council members and Gates have routinely bumped heads in recent years.

Tensions got so high that council members voted to hire their own outside counsel last December rather than continue consulting with Gates. 

The city attorney argued that any outside counsel would be required to work under him as outlined in the city charter. 

At the end of the meeting, council members defended the proposed change regarding the city attorney and their decision to release the report.

“This isn’t about this council. This isn’t about the city attorney, even though it’s been demonstrated here, what the challenges are, with regards to conflict of interest and things like that,” said Councilwoman Natalie Moser at last week’s meeting.

“But I think it’s really about the future of the city to make sure that we’re governing appropriately and that we’re all following our duties as elected officials.”

Councilwoman Kim Carr encouraged people to read the report on Gates. 

“It will clarify why the charter review was so necessary, because it’s something that we couldn’t talk about and so now you guys will all understand that this was never personal. It’s been about policy and procedure,” she said.

Some residents wrote emails to the city council against the proposed charter amendments.

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City council members decided not to put on the ballot a measure that would make the city clerk and city treasurer appointed positions, despite a recommendation to do so by the city’s charter review committee.

“There is some credence to having a treasurer be elected and not be beholden to staff or really other elected officials to try to direct investment strategy. And I think that holds true for me for the clerk’s office as well,” Posey said.

The charter review committee also recommended asking voters to make the city attorney an appointed position as well, but that wasn’t up for council debate last week.

The committee’s recommendations faced pushback from some residents as well as Gates who called the committee “political” back in April after the recommendations were made.

[Read: Huntington Beach Begins Process To Remove City Attorney, Clerk, Treasurer From Ballot]

One of the charter amendment measures up for a vote would clean up, update and clarify language in the charter as well as use gender neutral references and would change the title of Mayor Pro Tem to Vice Mayor.

Another measure would remove the requirement for the city attorney to be a graduate of a law school accredited by the American Bar Association.

The measure also makes amendments to the city’s rules on city council vacancies.

The proposed measure would clearly define that appointing a candidate to fill a vacancy would require at least four supportive votes from seated city council members.

The appointee would remain in office until “an election to fill the remainder of the unexpired term at the next general municipal election,” according to the language of the proposed charter changes.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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