Huntington Beach City Council and the elected city attorney are fighting over what may be the city’s most controversial ballot measure this year and what opinions from officials voters will be presented with.

Councilman Erik Peterson called the ballot proposal a “power grab” by his colleagues, which asks voters to make it easier for the city council to hire outside lawyers.

The issue once again focuses on city attorney Michael Gates, one of the most high profile figures in Huntington Beach politics and the only elected city attorney in Orange County. 

The city council and Gates have been at odds for years, with discussions earlier this year about removing city attorney as an elected position altogether and hiring someone to fill the seat, the way every other city in Orange County handles the position. 

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

While the council ultimately decided not to remove Gates’ elected position, they moved forward with the ballot proposal for outside lawyers.

The measure points to a recent case where the city lost $1.5 million defending itself from a claim against Gates that was ultimately settled, claiming in a review authored by a lawyer hired by the council that Gates never properly recused himself on the case. 

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

Gates has opposed the proposal, saying it is “flawed,” and misinterprets the law because the council doesn’t understand legal issues. 

“One branch of government shouldn’t be reviewing another branch like this,” Gates said. “I have a bunch of non-lawyers on the city council trying to lecture me about the dos and don’ts in an attorney-client relationship which is incredibly disrespectful and wrong.” 

When an issue goes to the ballot, proponents and opponents of the measure are allowed to write a short message that is sent out in the voter guide telling them the pros and cons of their vote. 

Councilman Erik Peterson decided to submit a letter defending Gates’ position. 

In the proposed ballot argument, Peterson came out swinging against fellow Council members Rhonda Bolton and Dan Kalmick, two of the council’s largest proponents of the move, calling it “dangerous.” 

“Councilmembers Bolton/Kalmick (NOT licensed attorneys) PROVE this is a POWER-GRAB to give City Council MORE POWER to hire outside attorneys – BYPASSING the voters’ City Attorney,” Peterson wrote. 

Peterson also alleged that Craig Steele, the attorney who wrote the report, was a longtime family friend of Kalmick.

Gates points to the fact that Steele is the city attorney for Seal Beach, where Kalmick’s father Joe is currently mayor. 

Dan Kalmick has repeatedly denied any preexisting connection, saying he met Steele for the first time when former city manager Oliver Chi brought him in to conduct the investigation. Chi knew Steele from his time as the city manager in Monrovia, where Steele was also city attorney. 

“The first time I saw (the accusation), it came from Michael Gates in an interview,” Kalmick said in a phone interview. “I’m guessing it’s an attempt to deflect against the content of that report.”

Peterson ends the written ballot argument urging residents to vote against the measure.

“I have worked with Mr. Gates for 8 years,” Peterson wrote. “All decisions were made BY CITY COUNCIL and Mr. Gates is nothing but a stellar City Attorney. Vote NO.”

To read Peterson’s ballot argument, click here

Bolton and Kalmick shot back at Peterson’s ballot argument in a letter of their own to the acting city clerk, writing that the entire statement should not be shown to voters. 

“(Peterson’s) content, lies and disparagement are completely inappropriate for the purpose of a ballot argument under the Elections Code,” they wrote. “False or misleading statements must be removed from the ballot argument.”

The two laid out just under a dozen points where they claimed Peterson either lied or poorly represented them, including pointing out that Bolton is a licensed attorney in the state of Virginia.  

To read Kalmick and Bolton’s letter, click here

When Voice of OC reporters called Peterson for comment on Kalmick and Bolton’s letter, he initially declined to comment, before sending a second letter where he said the issue should be decided in court, not by the city attorney. 

“The letter is nonsense,” Peterson wrote, referring to Kalmick and Bolton. “If such requests are going to be honored, then I formally request Bolton and Kalmick’s Argument … be stricken.” 

It remains unclear whether or not the issue will get discussed at the council’s public meeting on Tuesday, but Kalmick and Bolton have scheduled a discussion on the attorney-client relationship between Gates and the city council where the issue could come up. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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