Sandbox: What’s politics got to do with a city attorney?

by Jim Light

This is a fine historical perspective on the elected City Attorney position in Redondo Beach (“Sandbox: Redondo Beach city attorney at contention since charter adoption,” Feb. 8, 2024).  But there are other important considerations to take into account in deciding if a city attorney is to be elected, as is Redondo’s or appointed. 

First, why is an elected city attorney such a rarity? There are 482 municipalities in California. Only 10 or 11 have elected city attorneys. All the others have appointed city attorneys, outsourced attorney services, or employee city attorneys. Those cities do just fine.

Second, electing a City Attorney makes it a political position. Elections require campaign support. They require stating policy positions. I firmly believe the City Attorney should not form public policy. That is the job of the city council. The City Attorney should ensure the city and its residents follow the law, file and pursue lawsuits when required to protect the city’s best interests, and ensure the best defense of the city against lawsuits. Those roles should be accomplished without a political agenda, and without the conflict inherent in portions of the community that supported the winning City Attorney and portions of the community that opposed the winning City Attorney. The City Attorney should be above political agendas. For the same reason I oppose the city council appointing the city attorney.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, electing a city attorney limits the pool of potential choices. A city attorney ideally would be versed in criminal law, election law, and laws related to running a city government. To qualify for election, a City Attorney candidate only needs to be an attorney in good standing and live in the city. There is no requirement for government law experience. How many attorneys with substantial government legal experience actually live in Redondo? And how many of those would even want to campaign to be elected?

I think it obvious that the City would get the best legal representation from an attorney selected based on legal experience and performance rather than by where they happen to live and whether they want to campaign to be elected every four years.

When you consider these factors it seems obvious, the city would be best served by a city attorney who is not elected. If we want to remove politics from the position, which I believe we should, the best choice for a city of our size would be a City Attorney recommended by the City Manager, after a thorough recruiting effort, and approved by the Council.

While history is an aspect of the issue to consider, we should not solely make this decision based on what we have done before. When you look at all the factors related to the alternatives, I think an apolitical, highly qualified City Attorney with government law experience is far superior to the risks and problems associated with a politically political elected City Attorney whose qualifications only need be: Lives in the City; is an attorney in good standing. ER

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