Commentary: Measure N would clarify the role of Huntington Beach’s elected city attorney

The legal profession is guided by the law and a code of ethics, and it is based on trust — trust between the client and their attorney. In all of Orange County, only the Huntington Beach City Council does not get to choose its attorney; here, that person is elected by the voters. This makes the trust between the client and the attorney even more challenging but also more important because two sets of elected officials must trust each other that politics are never paramount, that the management and fiduciary responsibilities of the City Council as managers of the city, and through that entity the taxpayers of Huntington Beach, are put first and foremost.

In our current political climate, the client (the elected City Council) is at odds with its attorney (the elected city attorney), who has put politics ahead of professionalism and the public interest and espouses a singular and extreme interpretation of the City Charter to justify his actions.

The California Rules of Professional Conduct are the guiding principle for how any attorney, including an elected city attorney, should interact with any client, including a city council. Our current city attorney seems to believe the only rules he has to follow are those laid out in our City Charter. Unfortunately, the charter has no clear language defining the attorney-client relationship involving the city attorney, as the drafters of the charter probably felt they could rely on the universal practice embodied in the Rules of Professional Conduct. They did not foresee a city attorney who seems to live in a different universe.

As described all too clearly in the recently concluded independent operational review, there has been a breakdown in the guardrails in the city attorney‘s office. When a case arises that involves the city attorney or their office as a defendant, or a conflict of interest exists regarding the city attorney or their office, then of course, the City Council can hire outside counsel to get unbiased, independent and trusted advice. The Rules of Professional Conduct require that in a situation like that, the attorney involved must step aside.

But the council’s doing exactly that was actively opposed by the current city attorney. It is surprising that the current city attorney took the position that he, and only he, can procure and guide outside counsel, even when a conflict of interest exists. This goes against several California Bar Rules as well as plain common sense.

Measure N on the November ballot would make the universal Rules of Professional Conduct explicit in the City Charter, so there can be no mistaking them going forward. It will go a long way towards ensuring the trust necessary for good governance when a city has an elected city attorney. Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach already have these practices enshrined in their respective charters.

Measure N clearly defines the relationship between the City Council (the client) and the city attorney (their corporate attorney). It does not usurp the city attorney’s authority or their relationship to the voters. On the contrary, it helps protect the city attorney’s office from any perception of political gaming or conflict of interest.

As the former elected city attorney for the City of Huntington Beach, I support having an elected city attorney and would not support any charter amendment that would undercut the authority of the city attorney. Measure N does no such thing. I ask for you, the voters of Huntington Beach, to protect the integrity and authority of the city attorney’s office and the City Council, by voting in favor of this clarification of their roles. Keep the government of the city strong and focused on the needs of the city and its residents!

Gail Hutton was the elected city attorney in Huntington Beach from 1978 to her retirement in 2002.

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