Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates faces a challenger this election: The man who sued him [The Orange County Register]
Orange County Register (CA)
Four years ago, Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates ran unopposed for his second term.
This time around will be different. And it may even get a little awkward.
His opponent is Scott Field, the former assistant city attorney who filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Gates and the city in 2019.
Field and Neal Moore, longtime city lawyers whose service to the city pre-dated Gates, settled the joint lawsuit last year for a combined $2.5 million. Neither is still employed by Huntington Beach.
Now, Field is coming out of retirement to square off against the man he named in his lawsuit.
“I welcome any challenger,” Gates, 47, said.
Huntington Beach stands alone in electing a city attorney — a practice enshrined in its charter more than a century ago. Orange County’s other 33 cities appoint attorneys, whom councils can switch out at will. The deadline for additional city attorney candidates to file with the Orange County Registrar of Voters is Aug. 12.
Field, 66, said he decided to vie for the position after reading a report on the handling of his lawsuit. The independent analysis was requested by city council members, some of whom questioned that Gates played a role in the case instead of completely recusing himself.
Published on the July 5 city council agenda, the 69-page report concluded that although Gates did not break any laws, the city might have cut its losses if he had not pushed to vindicate himself in court.
“Until that report was released, I never considered running for city attorney,” Field said. “Voters need to have the option of not accepting someone who cannot even meet ethical standards.”
But Gates argued that the report is “unreliable,” solicited by a city council that largely has been at odds with him over the past two years.
“I had a good relationship with council members for six years prior to the new council being elected in 2020,” Gates said, maintaining he is proud of his record as Huntington Beach’s city attorney.
“We’ve had great results managing large, difficult cases — rolling up our sleeves to fight for the community,” he said. He cited trial victories for the city in police-related cases as well as a recent California Superior Court ruling awarding Huntington Beach$5.2 million for an old redevelopment deal.
“What does Mr. Field think he could do better? That’s a curious question. He has never managed a team of lawyers or an office this size,” said Gates, who oversees seven attorneys and three other employees.
Field worked in the Huntington Beach city attorney’s office for 26 years, after serving as the city attorney for Mission Viejo and Temecula.
“I have the experience to bring the office back to what it should be,” Field said. “We need a city attorney who can work effectively with all city council members and all staff, and one who is not divided by partisan interests. It’s time for change in Huntington Beach.”
Both candidates are longtime residents of the city.
Gates moved to Huntington Beach as a child and graduated from Marina High. He earned degrees at Pepperdine University and Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law. He and his wife have five children.
“It’s my passion to serve the city I grew up in,” Gates said.
Field graduated from UC Berkeley and UCLA School of Law. He and his wife raised two children in Huntington Beach.
“To both work and live in this community has been a dream come true,” Field said.
He plans to come into office with a positive attitude, Field said: “I’ll treat everyone with respect and assume the best about each one of them. I’m not going in there to clean house.”
Meanwhile, Gates has every intention of staying put.
“My goals might sound cliche, but I want to keep doing the best job I can for the city I love,” Gates said. “It’s been a real joy. As long as the voters will have me, I’m happy to continue representing them.”
As stipulated by the charter, the city attorney must reside in Huntington Beach.
“It certainly limits the pool,” Field said. “In a city like Los Angeles, you have lots of qualified people wanting to run, but in Huntington Beach, there’s only a few of us.”
“I think we need to look at whether we even want to have an elected city attorney,” he added.
It’s a conversation that city officials have broached in recent years, but charter edits must be approved by voters. Council members considered posing the question in the upcoming election but instead pared it back to asking voters for clarification regarding who can hire outside attorneys.
Others, including Gates, say electing a city attorney empowers voters.
“I think the current system is best for the community, although it may not always be best for the city council,” he said.
He also believes the city attorney should remain in full control of hiring outside lawyers. The current ballot measure, Gates said, “opens the door for politicians to look for excuses to not work with the city attorney.”
“Frankly, the council needs to let me do the job I was elected to do, and that the charter commands I do, and stop playing lawyer themselves,” Gates added.
However, the independent report commissioned by the council suggested charter tweaks about the city attorney’s authority over hiring.
Craig Steele — a city attorney for Seal Beach and Monrovia who works for Richards, Watson & Gershon, the firm tapped to compile the report — alleged Gates aimed to vindicate himself in court during the discrimination case. That resulted in his resistance to settling and in the hiring of high-priced trial attorneys, Steele said.
Although Gates said he “abstained” from the case, Steele wrote, “he participated directly in ways that blurred the important line between his personal interests” and the city’s needs.
The study alleged Gates sat in on numerous closed-session discussions about the case and assured council members the city would win in court. Furthermore, Steele said, attorneys working underneath Gates might have felt pressured to agree with their boss rather than make the best financial decisions for the city.
But Steele focused most of his criticism on Gates’ former assistant, senior trial counsel Brian Williams. The one-time city employee now works for the private law firm that helped with the Field-Moore case.
In December 2020, Williams resigned from his tax-paid job defending the city against the lawsuit to become a partner at Greenberg Gross — where, according to the report, he seamlessly continued working on the case.
Williams himself had recommended Greenberg Gross to the city to assist in trial cases. The 10 other private firms competing for the contract submitted lower bids, but Greenberg Gross won the job at $495 per hour.
“Essentially, Mr. Williams left the city attorney’s office and continued litigating the case, at a much higher billable rate,” Steele wrote.
Steele said “at the direction of the city council,” he submitted an inquiry to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for an investigation of Williams’ actions. The referral is still pending, he said.
Williams did not respond to requests for comment.
Steele also said that the city should seek “a return of some legal fees from Greenberg Gross” for work Williams started as a city employee — including “not just one, but two mock trials of the case, which is highly unusual in a public agency employment case.”
Huntington Beach spent about $1.5 million on outside counsel for the lawsuit. The $2.5 million settlement, in which the city did not “admit to nor concede any of the claims,” was covered by insurance.
Gates said that he was “surprised” when Williams announced he was leaving the city for Greenberg Gross.
“He was a valuable member of the team,” Gates said, adding, “It’s now up to the FPPC to take a look.”