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Supporters of local control hold signs as Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland, City Attorney Michael Gates, and Councilman Casey McKeon, speak during a news conference at the Huntington Beach Civic Center on Tuesday, February 14, 2023, concerning California State Attorney General Rob Bonta’s threat of litigation if the city refuses the state-mandated housing goals. City officials said they will contest efforts by the state which requires them to add more than 13,000 more housing units to meet the state’s Housing Accountability Act. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Supporters of local control hold signs as Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland, City Attorney Michael Gates, and Councilman Casey McKeon, speak during a news conference at the Huntington Beach Civic Center on Tuesday, February 14, 2023, concerning California State Attorney General Rob Bonta’s threat of litigation if the city refuses the state-mandated housing goals. City officials said they will contest efforts by the state which requires them to add more than 13,000 more housing units to meet the state’s Housing Accountability Act. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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City Attorney Michael Gates at a “Save Huntington Beach Victory Rally” for Republican candidates for city council in 2022. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

When Huntington Beach city councilmembers wanted to (despite threats that this violated state law), and (despite state commands), their city attorney didn’t grimace or drag his hand across his neck or shake his head vehemently “NO!” in an attempt to dissuade them.

No, Michael Gates is a rare breed — an elected, rather than appointed, city attorney, which might explain his crusading bent and eagerness to take on the powers-that-be. “We will defend the city from attacks by the state,” “We will defend the will of the people.”

Elected city attorneys and clerks and treasurers and police chiefs are scarce in California, and their modus operandi can be quite different from the professionals who answer to city councils rather than directly to voters. There are only a couple of hundred of these elected professionals for cities in California. (We took – and their pay – recently.)

The elected professionals often found in older cities, and conspicuously absent in newer ones (where focus is often on thrift and efficiency).

The most highly paid among these rare city electeds is Santa Clara’s police chief — the only city police chief in the state still elected by the people. Wages were $329,977, with health and retirement benefits worth $207,218, for total compensation of $537,195, according to controller’s data from 2022, the most recent year available. A ballot measure in March sought to make the police chief’s position appointed rather than elected, but .

Next up was San Francisco’s sheriff (showing up here only because San Francisco is both city and county; elected law enforcement heads are much more common in county than in city governments, so San Francisco is its own animal). The sheriff had total wages of $294,430 and health and retirement benefits worth $185,540, for total compensation of $479,970.

Then came the elected city attorneys. Long Beach’s had total comp of $445,462; Redondo Beach’s had total comp of $401,786; and Huntington Beach’s had total comp of $395,062.

City attorneys have a very important job: They’re the city’s lawyer, trying to keep it out of trouble, defending it in lawsuits, advising on what the city can and can’t do. The overwhelming majority of California city councils directly appoint the city attorney — in 469 of 482, according to t. And the vast majority of city attorneys are not city employees — about two-thirds of them — instead working for outside firms that contract with the city for legal services. Only one-third of city attorneys are actually on staff as city employees.

County by county

A notice for intent to recall was filed with city clerk’s office. (Photo credit: “Tony Wu Recall” Committee)

Here are some other most well-compensated city electeds, by county:

Orange County. There are fewer than a dozen of these officials in all of O.C. After Huntington Beach’s city attorney, there was Laguna Beach’s city clerk, with total comp of $178,179; Huntington Beach’s city clerk, with total comp of $157,810; Laguna Beach’s city treasurer, with total comp of $148,176; Huntington Beach’s city treasurer, with total comp of $101,042; and San Clemente’s city treasurer, with total comp of (drum roll please) $5,747. Brea also had an elected treasurer who made barely enough to stay in coffee for a year ($600), while Orange’s treasurer collected nothing.

Riverside County. Just more than a baker’s dozen here, led by Blythe’s city clerk, with total comp of $213,214; Blythe’s city treasurer, with total comp of $199,481; Cathedral City’s city treasurer, with total comp of $44,237; Coachella’s city clerk, with total comp of $27,471; Banning’s city treasurer, with total comp of $20,724; and Corona’s city treasurer, with total comp of $14,612.

Los Angeles County. More than 60 elected professional positions dot the municipal landscape here, several with total comp close to or well exceeding $200,000. After the aforementioned Long Beach and Redondo Beach city attorneys, there was Long Beach’s city prosecutor, with total comp of $357,545; Long Beach’s city auditor, $342,547; Los Angeles’ city attorney, $299,373; Los Angeles city controller, $293,674; Long Beach city attorney, $291,827; Glendale city treasurer, $245,812; Compton city attorney, $228,461; Burbank city clerk, $205,636; Redondo Beach city clerk, $202,852; Burbank city treasurer, $201,944; Monrovia city clerk, $195,943; and Torrance city clerk, $195,105.

San Bernardino County. Fifteen served here, led by Rialto’s city treasurer with total comp of $359,440; Twentynine Palms’ city clerk, $132,964; Redlands city clerk, $94,297; Colton city treasurer, $46,692; Ontario city treasurer, $41,488; and Ontario city clerk, $41,261.

What’s it all about?

City treasurers typically oversee investments and investment policy, and monitor revenue and cash flows.

City clerks prepare and maintain the city’s official records. City prosecutors might handle specific types of crime committed in the city, such as misdemeanors; city auditors keep an eye on the books via performance audits, financial audits and special investigations; and city controllers approve payments and handle the city’s accounting.

Cities that elect these positions are often old-timers. Being directly accountable to the voters was the wisdom of the time (though most voters would be hard-pressed to name their city treasurer or why they voted for one candidate over the other), and change is hard.

Brea, for example, has had an elected city treasurer as long as anyone can remember — and the city incorporated in 1917. A measure to convert the position from elected to appointed was rejected by voters in 1996. The treasurer’s modest $50-a-month stipend was set by the city council.

Which takes us back to Huntington Beach, founded in the 1880s and incorporated as a charter city in 1909. It’s a full-service metropolis — meaning it has its own police, fire, public works and other key departments — and employs more than 1,000 people, according to its Its governance structure was set in stone in that charter, with seven elected city councilmembers as well as an elected treasurer, attorney and clerk, each serving four-year terms.

“This means that if the City were to ever pursue changing that structure, it would need to be placed on the ballot and put out to a vote by Huntington Beach residents,” spokesperson Jennifer Carey said by email. “Additionally, only 10 cities in California have elected city attorneys but because it’s typically the larger cities (e.g., Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, etc.), 70% of voters in California elect their attorney — because those 10 cities have 70% of the state’s population.”

Which is an interesting way to look at it. Attorneys elected by the voters may have a different relationship with the city council than those appointed by the city council, the League of California Cities noted in  Appointment by the city council creates a more traditional employer-employee relationship “and, at times, loyalties and reporting obligations may become blurred,” it said.

(iStockphoto)

“Elected city attorneys are likely to have a greater sense of duty to the public, who they ‘serve’ and who elected them. In practice, this can take many forms. For example, elected city attorneys are much more likely to conduct public forums, issue public opinions or reports on matters of community interest, and provide information connecting residents and constituents to pro bono legal services. The relative ‘independence’ of the elected city attorney from the city council (who, after all, cannot fire them) can also lead city attorneys to be more direct and emphatic in communicating their legal advice…. Although the elected city attorney is accountable to the public through elections, the ‘city’ (not the public) is the city attorney’s client.”

One can extrapolate the public-facing tendencies infuse other elected positions as well.

Desirable

Despite voters often knowing little about these posts, they can be fiercely fought over.

In Redlands, the city clerk has been an elected position since 1890, shortly after it incorporated, said spokesman Carl Baker. The first was  L.W. Clark, who was re-elected every two years until 1906, when A.J. Leonard beat him by a three-vote margin. Clark came back to win the office in 1908 but was defeated again in 1910, this time by R. Warner Thomas by more than 200 votes. Successors included Clint P. Hook, who held the office for 30 years (1914 to 1944), and Lorrie Poyzer, who held it for some 24 years (1983 until 2007). The current clerk, Jeanne Donaldson, was first elected in 2016.

They can also be evangelists for the cause.

In Laguna Beach, the city clerk and treasurer have been elected since the city incorporated in 1927. The treasurer has been part-time since the 1980s, but the clerk is full-time.

A city agenda in 2022 (Photo by Jennifer Iyer, Redlands Daily Facts/SCNG)

Laura Parisi, Laguna Beach’s elected treasurer, recently helped train other municipal treasurers via a “ course. In-house treasurers with investment chops know their cities better than third parties, the training said, and can tailor policies to the community based on input from the public, investment review committees, city managers, outside audits firm and in-house legal counsel. It’s often most cost-effective, directly responsible and responsive, the presentation argued. It also allows for community investment, where dollars benefit the city.

The elected city attorney bit can be expensive. Between 2022 and 2023, Huntington Beach’s city attorney expenses rose nearly 50%, from $2.2 million to $3.2 million, according to That’s because the city council approved four new positions within the office, including a community prosecutor, municipal law attorney, civil litigation attorney and legal assistant, Carey said.

After a group sued over Huntington Beach’s refusal to include enough low-income housing, the city ultimately agreed to add more but fought an order to pay the group more than $3.5 million in attorneys’ fees. It lost in the Court of Appeal, which noted that “[t]he litigation against the City was instrumental in the City adopting [a Housing Element], which conferred a significant benefit to residents in Huntington by assuring that development in Huntington included lower-income housing.”

Huntington Beach paid that in full in September, so we’ll be looking for it on next year’s financial reports.

Jeannie Paris, of Huntington Beach, in 2023 (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Last week, the state secured holding Huntington Beach accountable for flouting its housing element law, and the city must come into compliance in 120 days.

“Huntington Beach is not above the law — that’s the essence of today’s ruling. Local governments up and down our state should take notice,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta in a prepared statement. “We are facing a housing crisis of epic proportions, and my office will continue to act with great urgency, working with cities and counties that genuinely want to be part of the solution and holding accountable those that do not.”

Gates promised to file an appeal.

“In spite of Attorney General Bonta’s early victory lap… this case is far from over,” he said in a prepared statement. “We’ll continue the fight to defend Huntington Beach from the Sacramento assault to destroy our great City….. The City has its best lawsuit against the State’s high-density housing mandates presently in Federal Court. We’ll continue these battles on all fronts and we will not be deterred or intimidated.”

Stand by for the  It’ll be a doozy.

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