The Relationship Between the City Manager and the City Attorney in California

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

I have worked in three cities: I was a clerk in the City of Santa Clara in an in-house City Attorney’s Office of a charter city with an appointed City Attorney; I was a Deputy City Attorney in the City of San Bernardino, with an elected City Attorney, and I was the Assistant City Attorney of the City of Redlands, a general law city with an in-house appointed City Attorney.   There was only one City Attorney and City Manager for the City of Santa Clara during my tenure, only one City Attorney and one City Administrator transformed by a charter change to City Manager in San Bernardino, yet there were two City Managers and one interim City Manager during my time as an Assistant City Attorney in Redlands.   In Redlands and San Bernardino, the same City Attorneys reign still, and the City Attorney of Santa Clara, Mike Downey only retired within the last decade after decades of service.

Typically, the relationship in a general law city between the City Attorney and the City Manager is that they are both appointed by the Council, and subject to removal by the Council.  That means they have similar interests.  Typically, both the City Attorney and the City Manager have to keep the Council happy and do their respective jobs, and only rarely will they be on the opposite side of any issue.  In the best situations, the City Attorney can assist the City Manager in accomplishing the City Manager’s duties in accordance with municipal, state and Federal law.

In a charter city, it depends on what the Charter says, but I am not aware of any Charter that subordinates the City Attorney to the City Manager.  Certainly, Santa Clara, San Bernardino and Riverside do not. Typically, the functions are separate, and the two must work together in the same way as in a general law city to meet the city’s needs, whether administratively, during budgeting and on employment matters.

An elected City Attorney, a relatively rare position, has an independent base of power granted by the electorate, subject to removal from office by regular election or recall.  This can create a different dynamic between the appointed City Manager and the elected City Attorney, because their interests are not necessarily the same.

The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

A: 300 E. State St. Suite 517
     Redlands, CA 92373-5235
T: (909) 708-6055

About Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law
Michael Reiter is a Redlands, California-based lawyer, serving San Bernardino County and Riverside County in Southern California's Inland Empire. Michael Reiter is a lawyer practicing in the following fields of law: Municipal Law, Code Enforcement Law, Small Business Law and Real Estate Law. Michael Reiter practices in all the local courts, including San Bernardino Superior Court, Riverside Superior Court, and the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Michael Reiter was admitted to the California State Bar in 1998. Michael Reiter was Assistant City Attorney for the City of Redlands, a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino, and Staff Attorney for Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino. Michael Reiter serves all of San Bernardino and Riverside County, Orange County, and Los Angeles County. Michael Reiter can be reached at (909) 296-6708, or by electronic mail at 300 E. State St. #517 Redlands CA 92373-5235

2 Responses to The Relationship Between the City Manager and the City Attorney in California

  1. John Borst says:

    Can a general law city have an elected city attorney?

    • Long answer: Once upon a time, non-charter cities had elected City Attorneys (and other now-extinct elected officials). However, the general law (read, the Government Code) does not have any provisions about elected City Attorneys. If someone wants an elected City Attorney, they need to pass a charter first.
      Short Answer: No.

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