Report Criticizes Huntington Beach City Attorney’s Handling of Age Discrimination Claims

The Huntington Beach City Council voted 6-1 last week to waive attorney-client privilege and release the results of an independent investigation involving City Attorney Michael Gates. The report by Craig Steele of Los Angeles-based law firm Richards, Watson & Gershon criticized Gates’ handling of an age discrimination complaint against him.

Gates described the move as “an ambush” in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He was hoping to speak with Steele about the findings before they were released publicly. Gates added that the hiring of an outside lawyer to look into his handling of a 2019 complaint was a violation of the city’s charter.

“The Huntington Beach City Charter designates me as the exclusive legal counsel for the city, period, full stop. There’s no caveat, there’s no exception. It is what it is,” he told the Times.

Members of the council take issue with Gates' reading of the city charter and his interpretation of legal precedent, noting that he had a clear conflict of interest in the case.

The age discrimination lawsuit resulted in a $2.5 million settlement. City officials say Huntington Beach spent another $1.5 million fighting the complaint.

“In my opinion, the lack of any independent supervision of this case was not reflective of good litigation management practices and created a situation where a majority of the members of the City Council now question whether over $1.5 million in city funds were well spent,” Steele said in his report.

The report also recommended changes to the city charter to clarify ambiguous language regarding the role of the city attorney. In response, the city council has approved a charter amendment proposal that would ensure a larger role for the council in legal matters. It would also expressly permit the city to contract with outside legal counsel when the city attorney has a conflict of interest.