Orange County Supervisors Act to Settle Suit Challenging
Longtime Outside Attorney for Aviation Issues

SEPTEMBER 20, 2000

The Orange County Board of Supervisors has made it harder for the county to use outside attorneys to defend its plans for a new airport at El Toro, moving to settle a lawsuit alleging that the county's longtime aviation attorney was illegally assigned the cases.

In a closed-door meeting Tuesday, board members unanimously approved a conceptual agreement settling the suit, filed in 1998 by South County cities challenging the hiring of Carlsbad attorney Michael Gatzke. Gatzke has represented the county on aviation matters since 1969.

Under the settlement, the five-member board can hire outside counsel for the airport only on a four-fifths vote. Only three members of the Board of Supervisors support an airport at the closed El Toro Marine base, and the remaining supervisors have vowed to do whatever they can to stop it from being built -- including denying the county the ability to hire an outside attorney to defend itself.

Beginning in 1994, Gatzke was asked by County Counsel Laurence M. Watson to defend the county against three El Toro lawsuits. When questioned about the hiring in early 1998 by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Watson said he was given hiring authority by a former Board of Supervisors. However, Spitzer argued that state law requires a vote by supervisors each time private attorneys are hired to handle new cases.

The settlement was approved earlier this month by representatives of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, who want the formidable Gatzke precluded from any new El Toro lawsuits.

Spitzer said Gatzke -- who has collected nearly $2 million for his El Toro work -- is too expensive and hasn't kept the county from losing in court. A San Diego County judge has twice ordered the county to recalculate how much air pollution the proposed airport would cause -- additional work that complicated the current environmental review, now about a year away from completion.

"If they want to defend their [new report], they can do it [with an] in-house" attorney, Spitzer said.

Source: Los Angeles Times