San Clemente could be getting a new city attorney following a heated city council meeting where a razor thin majority decided to open up bids for the city’s top legal job over increasing legal fees.

Dissenting council members argued the move could cripple the city by removing their chief legal counsel and replacing him with someone who’s inexperienced on the city’s issues.  

The search for a possible replacement comes after years of highly publicized fights between City Attorney Scott Smith and Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, who showed a presentation during the council meeting breaking down her concerns with his tenure and calling for a review of other options. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, Ferguson – a former city public information officer for nearly 20 years – claimed Smith represented Councilman Gene James in two private court cases paid by taxpayers.

“Having worked with four different government agencies, I haven’t quite experienced what I have with an attorney of an agency being so biased towards the community’s elected official,” Ferguson said. “The client is unequivocally the city, not individual councilmembers.”

Nobody directly addressed Fergusons’ claims that Smith represented James in private matters.

While Smith recused himself from the council’s initial discussion, James gave him a chance to comment. 

“It makes me proud. My job is to defend the city against all adversaries whether they’re out here,” Smith said, pointing at the speakers in the audience, “Or up there,” pointing to the council dais. 

“I’m proud the adverse party is feeling the heat of the city’s defense,” he continued. “I’m happy your opponents are feeling the brunt of my advocacy on your behalf.” 

Ferguson has repeatedly disagreed with Smith and the council majority, arguing they are opposed to transparency measures and that she was cut off from records she was entitled to after she released a poll city staff said was confidential.

[Read: San Clemente Councilwoman Clashes With City Staff Over Access to Records

She’s currently suing the city for records over her 2020 censure for criticizing city staff, which she accused Smith of rigging the censure proceeding against her during her presentation. 

Ferguson also alleged that Smith had yelled at her behind closed doors, calling her “the adverse councilmember,” and attempted to have her removed from private council meetings. 

James and Councilman Steve Knoblock agreed with Ferguson on the necessity of looking at other options, but said their concerns were purely financial. 

“It’s always in the best interest of our citizens and our tax pocketbooks to be sure we’re getting the best bang for our buck,” Knoblock said at the meeting. “We need to bring legal costs down.” 

Best Best & Krieger, the firm Smith works at that provides legal services for several other cities in Orange County, has charged the city on average just under $2 million a year from 2015 to 2021,  according to city records. 

James apologized to Smith for Ferguson’s comments and praised his work as the city attorney, but said the council’s role as financial stewards meant the contract needed to be reviewed. 

“This description of Scott Smith is not the person I know, not the person I have witnessed … but I do believe we need to look at the contract,” James said. “I’m going to vote for the RFP, but thank you sir.”

Councilmembers Kathy Ward and Chris Duncan voted against looking for a new lawyer, praising Smith’s work and claiming the new city council would descend into chaos without him after the November election. 

“Well, that was quite something,” Duncan said after Ferguson’s presentation. “We have a great contractor in our city attorney, we should keep him. Don’t mess with something that’s working. I wouldn’t approve opening up any kind of contract negotiations.” 

Ward agreed with Duncan, criticizing members of the audience who were asking for Smith to be fired. 

“I’m looking at a bunch of people who have wanted to fire anyone that has anything to do with fighting for this city,” Ward said. “The new city council will be starting and they won’t have anyone to fight for them, and boy I think you’d like that.”

The contentious discussion broke down multiple times Tuesday night, with public commenters yelling over the council discussion as James repeatedly banged the gavel and called for order, eventually breaking for a five minute recess to cool off the room. 

Under the motion approved by Ferguson, Knoblock and James, city staff will have a month to prepare and issue a request for bids for either a contract city attorney or an in-house city attorney, meaning the ultimate decision on whether Smith stays will be in the hands of the next city council. 

Ferguson and Ward won’t be around for that discussion, both having chosen not to seek reelection, and Knoblock is running for reelection. Duncan is also currently running for State Assembly, and if he wins, would leave his seat on the council vacant. 

That means the council who ultimately decides Smith’s fate could be four entirely new faces and James. 

Just before the council’s vote on the issue, Duncan again pleaded with his colleagues not to go forward as he was booed by members of the audience. 

“The type of chaos we’re seeing here is nothing compared to what will happen when we weaken a city attorney who has stood by us,” Duncan said. “This is going to be a disaster for San Clemente.” 

Knoblock, who ultimately moved the item, chimed in with the council’s final discussion on the issue. 

“To declare division and disaster when someone disagrees with you is a common trait of the left to say shut up, sit down, you don’t have an opinion,”  Knoblock said. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

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.

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