New City Attorney: What Should SM Look For?
November 11, 2021
Opinion By Matt Neco
Being an outstanding City Attorney is a serious job that needs to be taken seriously. We (our City Council acting on our behalf and in our best interests) need to be serious in selecting our next City Attorney. And so the following are some important requirements of our next City Attorney.
• Abiding loyalty to and deep understanding of and respect for the Constitutions of the United States and California, as well as Government Codes. This includes open meetings and public records/freedom of information act requirements (with timely turnovers, no excuses, and only strictly necessary redactions). 1st Amendment freedom of speech, participatory democracy, and embracing the right of the people to petition government, anonymously if Publius so chooses.
• Commitment to non-partisanship, non-bias, including by writing and approving drafts of resolutions, measures, codes, preambles, reports, and staff recommendations that are truly factual and without opinion, rhetoric, persuasion or hyperbole, and comply with state, federal, and local laws. (E.g., no more preambles such as “Whereas, the City of Santa Monica fully and always complies with better than best practices, is fair and great, and this [resolution / measure] is clearly the best thing since sliced bread. . ..” [parody].)
• Ability and willingness to respectfully and sometimes diplomatically challenge, question, refute, negotiate with City Council, City Management and Staff, City Unions, developers, rogue business models that engage in “apologize later rather than ask for permission first” practices.
• Superb litigation and dispute resolution experience and skills, including mediation. (Has the City seen a personal injury or employee lawsuit that it hasn’t settled or agreed to in recent years, while choosing to battle other matters at great expense, on advice of counsel?)
• Holding The Rule of Law as preeminent. And consistent and unbiased enforcement of it, while also exercising excellent and well reasoned and well founded discretion.
• Understanding financial, economic, and budgetary implications, including with regard to the City Attorneys Office, outside counsel, bond measures, resolutions, Public-Private partnerships. Bidding processes. Cutting and not expanding bloat and unnecessary spending.
• Integrity. Ethical beyond reproach, in their personal and professional lives. Understanding and not engaging in conflicts of interest.
• Answering and being responsive to the People. No Lip Service. Many other municipalities elect city attorneys. We don’t. While that doesn’t always mean the city attorneys answer to the electorate rather than lobbies, or they are the best choices, and sometimes they aren’t, accountability and transparency (except when there is real attorney-client privilege and that isn’t being used as a shield) are important.
• Outstanding and superb leadership and communication skills, proven commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (including in outside counsel), and the health & wellness of employees. ESG (Environmental, social, and governance) criteria development and enforcement. Skillful in managing situations requiring diplomacy, fairness, justice, and sound judgement, managing staff.
• Up to date on technology.
• Municipal law experience might be helpful.
About me: 25+ years transplanted resident of Santa Monica. Lawyer (again, 25+ years), mediator, trusted advisor, business person, in-house counsel. Occasional public commenter and participant on City Council and other City matters. Wrote about a ballot measure on the ballot after fighting to prove to a prior City Attorney the absolute right to do so partly because they apparently failed to vet an incorrect determination that another person (group) qualified to do so. I take some credit for City Council now discussing in open meetings rather than behind closed doors whether the City should join on friend-of-the-court briefs. Appreciate and value public service. Have a love/hate relationship with Santa Monica. I want a vibrant, livable, safe, kind, considerate, place to live and work in with DEI and ESG.