WATSONVILLE—The city of Watsonville will see a major shift in leadership in 2022.
The election of a new city councilmember is ongoing, and four more seats will be open next year. Current City Manager Matt Huffaker will soon be moving to the city of Santa Cruz, and County Clerk Beatriz Vazquez Flores will retire in January.
After longtime City Attorney Alan Smith announced his retirement in April 2021, an extensive search was set in motion to find a new legal counsel for the city. Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra was part of the selection committee for the position. He said that after reading proposals and holding interviews, they narrowed it down to their top two candidates before selecting Samantha Zutler of Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP.
Zutler is currently the City Attorney for Capitola and Healdsburg. She has been working in municipal law for her entire 16-year career.
“I have wanted to work with cities and governments before I really knew what that meant,” Zutler said. “I’ve always believed in the power of local governments. They are vital to democracy, in building and sustaining communities. And I’ve been lucky enough to do just that.”
Zutler is the first woman to be appointed as Watsonville’s city attorney, which Dutra called “huge.”
“We strive to be representative of our communities,” he said. “I’m a big proponent of making sure women are in positions of leadership in our community.”
A city attorney is one of three positions employed by the City Council, along with the city manager and city clerk. They act as a general counsel, addressing any legal issue that might come to the city.
“I interface with the City Council and try to understand what their objectives are,” Zutler explains. “I do my best to make sure the city is compliant to any new changes to the law. Which is a full-time job in itself—the California state legislature is a busy one.”
Zutler said her experience working in Capitola prompted her to apply for another position in Santa Cruz County.
“I love this area,” she said. “It’s so interesting. In my experience, cities in Santa Cruz County generally work pretty well together. I’ve gotten to know a lot about the other cities through my work in Capitola. I like to apply to cities where I feel I can be effective and do some good. I also really like the [Watsonville City] Council and the staff. They seem to have a great reputation in the community. I watched a lot of meetings before I applied, and I thought I’d be a good fit.”
Burke, Williams & Sorensen is a large firm that serves multiple public agencies across the state. Dutra said that switching from an in-house attorney (Smith is a local resident who has been working for the city since 1995) to one from a larger firm will offer up new opportunities and resources to the city.
“Honestly, we’ve been spoiled for so long,” Dutra said. “Alan has been here for so many years, in his office inside of City Hall … But there were limitations. The small firm couldn’t always handle some of our larger lawsuits, so we had to contract out. Samantha’s firm is so big; basically, it’s like a one-stop shop. A lot of issues we couldn’t handle before will be able to be done through her firm.”
Added Zutler: “I know that the city has had a great relationship with their city attorney for years. So I have some big shoes to fill, which I acknowledge. But I think Watsonville can really benefit from going with a large firm. Cities the size of Watsonville have such a wide range of issues … I think our firm, our team can really bring something to the table.”
A diverse team
The legal team Zutler has assembled for Watsonville is made up mostly of attorneys that she has worked with in the past. Some were hand-selected to address issues specific to Watsonville.
“Since Watsonville has an airport … I brought in an attorney who is an expert in airport law,” Zutler said. “I brought him in specifically for this community.”
Zutler praised Burke, Williams & Sorensen’s history of diverse hiring practices. The new team for Watsonville is made up of mostly women—which was not necessarily intentional, Zutler said.
“Our firm is certainly interested in making sure we have attorneys that reflect the communities that hire us,” she said. “I can’t take much credit. They always make sure we have lots of women, a lot of people of color—a diverse collection of lawyers. I’ve been extremely fortunate to benefit from Burke’s awesome hiring.”
Zutler begins her appointment on Jan. 1 and said she is excited to start working in Watsonville.
“I want to make sure we’re able to give [the City Council] the legal backup they need to reach their goals …. That’s how I see my job,” Zutler said. “My job is to support them. To help them achieve whatever policies and goals they set for themselves. I hope to bring responsive, smart and informed legal services to the city.”
Dutra said that the Council has already started to work with Zutler, gradually introducing her to the community and its issues so her team can be “up and running” when they’re on full time. This will help the city as its leadership shifts.
“We are so excited to have Samantha and her team come in with new ideas,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for our community to start fresh and embrace change.”