Blog Category: In the News

Welcome, Aleks Giragosian!

Aleks Giragosian is our firm’s newest associate. He joins our Pasadena office as a member of the municipal advisory and litigation practice groups.

Before joining CH&W, Aleks was an associate at a law firm that serves as contract city attorney to two Southern California cities. His practice included a mix of litigation and advisory services. Aleks has negotiated and drafted purchase and sale agreements for the sale of public property following the dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies, provided advice to clients on new developments in public law, and litigated code enforcement and other matters.

Aleks previously served as a Legal Fellow in the Glendale City Attorney’s Office, where he drafted ordinances and prosecuted misdemeanor violations of the Glendale Municipal Code. In addition, he worked closely with city staff to revise Glendale’s local California Environmental Quality Act guidelines to clarify its procedural steps and incorporate recently enacted regulations.

While in law school, Aleks worked for a number of state and local agencies, including the California Attorney General, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and the California Public Utilities Commission.

Aleks graduated from UCLA with a Juris Doctor and a Master’s in Public Policy, earning the school’s prestigious Outstanding Academic Achievement Award. Aleks also received the Dukakis Fellowship and the Leadership in Sustainability Certificate awarded by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

On behalf of the attorneys and staff at CH&W, we warmly welcome Aleks to the team.

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Welcome, Gary Bell!

Gary Bell joins CH&W in our Grass Valley office working in both our municipal advisory and litigation practice groups.

He previously served as the City Attorney for the City of Firebaugh and as General Counsel to the Sierra Cedars Community Services District. His practice covers a range of public law issues, including constitutional law, public works contracting, conflicts of interest, code enforcement, land use, open meetings and records laws, and post-redevelopment issues. He serves as Assistant City Attorney of Grass Valley and Assistant General Counsel of the Successor Agency to the Grass Valley Redevelopment Agency and supports the work of our other Northern California general counsel clients. His current litigation projects include defense of a water agency’s connection charge against a challenge under Proposition 218.

Gary graduated with highest honors from UC Santa Cruz in 2008 with a B.A. in psychology. He received his J.D. in 2012 from the UC Davis School of Law, where he was staff editor of the UC Davis Business Law Journal, a research assistant in constitutional law, and a representative on the Student Services and Fees Administrative Advisory Committee. While at Davis, Gary worked as a law clerk in the Governor’s Office of Legal Affairs and as a legal extern at the Placer County Superior Court.

Before law school, Gary served as a Senate Fellow for the California State Senate in Sacramento, where he staffed the Senate Local Government Committee and worked on legislation of interest to California’s local governments.

Before joining CH&W, Gary advised municipal clients throughout California on a wide range of issues, including counties, cities, school districts, and special districts. His full profile is available here.

Welcome, Gary!


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Welcome, Megan Knize!

CH & W welcomes Megan Knize as Senior Counsel in the firm’s Litigation and Municipal Advisory Departments, where she will focus on a range of matters involving municipal finance and rate-making advice, class action litigation, and general municipal advisory work. Current assignments include advising municipalities and special districts on compliance with constitutional requirements under Propositions 26 and 218 for raising revenue as well as drafting Supreme Court briefing on the issue of whether a budget transfer from an electric utility to a general fund (a “payment in lieu of taxes” or a PILOT) is a tax under Proposition 26 or is grandfathered as to that measure because adopted before its 2010 effective date.

Megan comes to the firm having held three judicial clerkships and having worked for a large commercial litigation firm as well as a boutique litigation firm. Megan clerked in the Complex Litigation Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court as well in the U.S. District Court for Central District of California. From 2011–2012, Megan served as Court Counsel for the Supreme Court of the Republic of Palau. While living on this island-nation of 20,000 people in the North Pacific Ocean, Megan advised the court’s justices on a range of substantive and procedural matters.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Megan joined a boutique litigation firm where she represented individual and class action plaintiffs in a variety of consumer and employment cases in state and federal court. Megan handled all phases of litigation from the pleading stage through settlement.

Megan earned her law degree from the University of California, Davis, in 2008. While at UC Davis, Megan served as the Editor in Chief of the UC Davis Law Review. She also served as a teaching assistant for first-year Contracts students. Megan earned her Bachelor of Arts, with honors, in American Studies from Stanford University in 2003. While at Stanford, Megan served as Editor in Chief of The Stanford Daily.

Megan has volunteered for numerous pro bono legal groups, including the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest, Hungary and legal aid organizations throughout California. She also serves as a volunteer mediator for the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. She also served as a leader of the California Young Lawyers Association and was appointed by the President of the California State Bar to the Task Force on Admissions Regulation reform, which made ground-breaking recommendations for the education and training of new attorneys.  The State Bar is now in the process of adopting the Task Force’s changes.

In her free time, she enjoys yoga, hiking, and visiting friends and family around the world. Her full profile is available here.

Welcome, Megan!

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Welcome, Pamela Graham!

Pamela Graham joins CH&W as Senior Counsel in our Los Angeles office and is a member of our litigation practice group. Pamela’s practice covers a wide range of litigation matters, including land use, employment law disputes, municipal finance and public revenues, and general contract disputes.

Pamela comes to the firm with over 12 years of experience litigating complex commercial litigation matters. Prior to joining Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, Pamela was an attorney in the commercial litigation workgroups at Irell & Manella LLP for seven years and at Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP for five years. There, Pamela represented a diverse range of clients in the entertainment, retail, and other prominent Southern California industries in a variety of commercial litigation matters, including cases involving business torts, employment disputes, securities fraud, and trademark and copyright litigation. Pamela has broad litigation experience in both state and federal courts, handling all phases of litigation from the pleading stage through appeal. She has successfully defended a number of jury and bench trials.

Pamela earned her law degree magna cum laude from Loyola Law School in 2001. While at Loyola, Pamela served as the Chief Production Editor of the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. She was also the recipient of the Dean’s Academic Scholarship from 1999 through 2001, as well as the First Honors Award in legal research and writing, torts, and federal courts. Pamela earned her Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication and political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1996.

Immediately following law school, Pamela served as a law clerk to the Honorable Ronald S.W. Lew of the United States District Court, Central District of California.

During her legal career, Pamela has advocated pro bono for the rights of children in the foster care system. Partnering with the Alliance for Children’s Rights, Pamela has assisted over 25 families with the finalization of adoptions and advocated for lawful individualized education plans and services. Pamela has also worked with the March of Dimes for the past 10 years, bringing awareness to and fundraising for the fight against premature birth.

Pamela has served as adjunct faculty at Southwestern Law School, where she taught legal analysis, writing and skills, and at California State University, Northridge, where she taught advanced business law. Her full profile is available here.

Welcome, Pamela!

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Colantuono Certified as Appellate Specialist

The California State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization has designated Michael G. Colantuono as a Certified Appellate Specialist. The certification indicates that Colantuono has passed an exam in appellate law, attained substantial experience in the field, and won recommendations from his peers. There are only a few hundred such certified specialists in California and very few among local government lawyers. Michael has also been elected a member of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers, a prestigious organization of fewer than 100 of the most distinguished appellate advocates in California.

Colantuono is a very experienced appellate advocate. He has argued five cases in the California Supreme Court since 2004 and has handled appeals in all six Courts of Appeal around the State.

Colantuono said: “I am very pleased to become one of a small number of certified appellate lawyers in California. Preparing for the test and completing the certification process was a lot of work, but I am a better lawyer for it. I am grateful to have the chance to use my skills to help our public agency clients.”

Michael is City Attorney of Auburn and Grass Valley and general and special counsel of dozens of other local governments around California.  Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC serves Barstow, Calabasas, Lakeport, and Sierra Madre as City Attorney and many other counties, cities and special districts as special counsel.  Colantuono is a past president of the City Attorneys Department of the League of California Cities and the State Bar named him the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year in 2010.

More information about the California State Bar’s certified specialist program may be found at

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Highsmith & Whatley Join Michael Colantuono as New Shareholders in Respected Municipal Law Firm

New Firm Name: Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC

Los Angeles, California – April 14, Colantuono & Levin, PC, which serves as City Attorney of the Cities of Auburn, Barstow, Calabasas, Grass Valley, Lakeport, and Sierra Madre and as special counsel to many other local governments around California has admitted new shareholders and changed its name. Effective April 1, 2014, the firm is known as Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC. Its web and email addresses have changed, too, to change reflects elevation to shareholder status of Teresa (“Terri”) Highsmith and Holly Whatley, and the departure of Sandi Levin due to her appointment at Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Law Library—the second largest public law library in the United States.

“I’m pleased to have both Terri and Holly as my fellow shareholders. This reflects their significant contributions to the practice of municipal law and our firm,” said managing shareholder Michael G. Colantuono. “We are very pleased for Sandi Levin on her transition from law practice to a new role as Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Library. While we will miss her contributions to our firm, everyone in the legal community will benefit from Sandi’s contributions in her new capacity.”

Terri Highsmith has been a local government lawyer for more than two decades, representing cities in both Northern and Southern California. Terri started her career as a litigator, successfully defending the Cities of Lafayette, Orinda, Livermore, Livingston and Fremont in land use, elections and redevelopment matters, including preparation and defense of a ground-breaking local firearm sales ordinance for Lafayette which became a model for similar ordinances around California, garnering her recognition from the Legal Community United Against Violence. Terri currently serves as City Attorney of Barstow and Sierra Madre and served as City Attorney to Alameda from 2006 to 2011 before joining the firm. In addition, Terri is an expert in post-redevelopment matters and represents several Successor Agencies and Oversight Boards. She also leads the firm’s labor and employment practice.

Holly O. Whatley heads the litigation team in the firm’s LA office.Holly’s practice focuses on public law disputes, including post-redevelopment and other municipal finance issues, matters involving Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs), land use, CEQA, election, public works, employment law, and ground water disputes. She has represented cities in complex municipal finance litigation, including writ actions involving multi-million-dollar claims and class action tax refund suits. Holly was named one of the top 25 Municipal Lawyers of 2013 by the Daily Journal for her defense of telephone taxes. In addition, Holly serves as counsel to cities and local agencies, having served as City Attorney to the City of La Habra Heights. She currently serves as Planning Commission Counsel in Sierra Madre.

Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC, represents local governmental entities, including over 200 cities, counties, special districts, joint powers authorities and other local agencies in California. It has handled six local government revenue cases in the California Supreme Court since 2004 and has been on a steady growth path and will soon hire its sixteenth attorney. The firm practices from offices in Los Angeles and Nevada County. Its shareholders have been among the Top 25 Municipal Lawyers in each of the three years the Daily Journal has published such a list. Michael G. Colantuono is a past president of the City Attorneys Department of the League of California Cities and a current Trustee of the State Bar of California, having been appointed by the Speaker of the California Assembly to a three-year term.

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Michael Colantuono Top Municipal Law Attorney

Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journal names Michael G. Colantuono Top Municipal Law Attorney December 5, 2012.

Colantuono Top Municipal Law Attorney

Supplement to the Los Angeles and San Francisco
DECEMBER 5, 2012
Reprinted with permission from the Daily Journal. ©2012 Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted by Scoop ReprintSource 1-800-767-3263.

Among his significant matters, Colantuono recently prevailed in the state Supreme Court on behalf of 47 cities in a dispute with Los Angeles County. At issue was how two 2004 revenue measures associated with the state budget affected the duty of cities to reimburse counties for their share of the cost to operate the property tax system. City of Alhambra v. County of Los Angeles The question was whether the Legislature intended these property taxes, paid in lieu of other revenues, to count as property taxes to cities to which property tax administration fees would apply,” Colantuono said. Many, but not all, counties took the position that it did. “The result was to allow L.A. County to withhold about $10 million per year more from cities than it did previously,” he said. “We estimate the statewide impact at $40 million per year.” Colantuono said he will be returning to the trial court to decide the statute of limitations, and then determining how much each city is due. “Unless the Legislature revisits the question of how we fund our property tax system, counties will continue to bear the load they had historically borne,” Colantuono said. “The cities will pay only for the share the Legislature assigns to them.” As for his strategy on the case, Colantuono said, “The case is not a complex one. It’s a matter of construing dense sections of our tax laws. The case required patience and the analytical focus to make sense of statutes that no English teacher could love.” Meanwhile, the county has petitioned for a rehearing, which Colantuono considers “unusual,” adding, “It’s bold in its willingness to tell the court that they got the facts and law wrong.”

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C&L Founders Named 2 of Top 25 Municipal Lawyers in California

The Daily Journal, California’s leading legal newspaper, released its annual list of the Top 25 Municipal Lawyers in California. Michael G. Colantuono was named for the second year in a row. Sandra J. Levin was named as well.

The Daily Journal is California’s leading legal daily covering courts and other legal developments with publications in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Each year it identifies 25 municipal lawyers who have made the most significant contributions to public law in the prior year. The Daily Journal recognized Michael for his win in the California Supreme Court in Alhambra and 46 Other Cities v. County of Los Angeles, a case involving excess charges by counties to cities for operating the property tax system. More information about that case is available here. Perhaps $40 million per year is at stake statewide. The Daily Journal recognized Sandi for her leading role in defending local telephone taxes against industry and class action challenges, notably for the City of Los Angeles and on behalf of more than 40 cities in a suit against every city and county in the state which levies a telephone tax, Sipple v. City of Alameda et al. More information about that case is available here.

Recognition by the Daily Journal as one of the Top 25 Municipal Lawyers in California is a great honor and especially so to have two of our 14 lawyers recognized at the same time. While other firms had two lawyers recognized, those were much larger firms than ours. We are very proud of Michael’s and Sandi’s recognition.

Colantuono & Levin serves Auburn, Barstow, Calabasas, Grass Valley, La Habra Heights, Los Alamitos, and Sierra Madre as City Attorney and many other counties, cities and special districts as special counsel. Colantuono is a past president of the City Attorneys Department of the League of California Cities and the State Bar named him the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year in 2010. He also serves as a Trustee of the California State Bar.

More information about the Daily Journal and its Top 25 Municipal Lawyers may be found at More information about Colantuoo & Levin may be found here.

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Colantuono Appointed to State Bar Board of Trustees

Michael Colantuono

Speaker of the California Assembly John A. Pérez has appointed Grass Valley City Attorney Michael G. Colantuono to a three-year term on the Board of Trustees of the State Bar of California, the state agency which regulates the practice of law in California. Colantuono will join the Board at the Bar’s Annual Conference in Monterey in October.

Colantuono said: “I am deeply honored by this appointment. I look forward to working with the Bar’s other Trustees to protect the public, serve the profession, and seek adequate funding for our judicial system. I am grateful to the Speaker for this opportunity to continue my public service in a new setting.”

Legislation governing the Bar Trustees calls for a transition over the three years from 2012 to 2014 from a 23-member Board with 15 lawyers elected by lawyers around the state, plus appointed and non-lawyer members to a 19-member Board with 6 elected lawyers, 7 appointed lawyers and 6 non-lawyer members. Due to this transition, Colantuono will be the only lawyer who practices in the more than 20 counties north of Sacramento to serve on the Board in the 2012-13 year.

In addition to his part-time service as Grass Valley City Attorney, Colantuono serves as General Counsel of the Rough & Ready Fire Protection District and the Ophir Hill Fire District and as special counsel to Nevada County and the Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission. His firm, Colantuono & Levin, P.C. serves five other California cities as City Attorney and many other counties, cities and special districts as special counsel. Colantuono is a past president of the Nevada City Rotary Club, the Nevada County Bar Association, the Board of Trustees of the Nevada County Library and the Board of Directors of Northern California Legal Access, Inc., a non-profit which operates the Lawyer Referral Services in Nevada and 19 other northern California Counties.

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Colantuono Honored as Public Lawyer of the Year

On September 24, 2010 California Chief Justice Ronald M. George presented attorney Michael G. Colantuono of Penn Valley with the California State Bar’s Public Law Section’s 2010 Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year Award at a reception during the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in Monterey, Calif. Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court Carlos Moreno and incoming State Bar President Bill Hebert were also present to honor Colantuono.

The Chief Justice introduced Mr. Colantuono and recounted his 20 years of public service to local governments around California, noting his service as City Attorney of Auburn and Calabasas and general counsel to other cities and special districts and special counsel to other local governments. He noted Mr. Colantuono’s service as President of the City Attorneys Department of the League of California Cities in 2003-04 and his establishment of that Department’s first ethics committee which produced Practicing Ethics: A Handbook for Municipal Lawyers, published in 2004. The Chief Justice also noted that Mr. Colantuono has been quoted by the Los Angeles Times in recent articles about the scandal in the City of Bell, California, explaining plainly how far that city has strayed from the legal standards other cities observe.

Colantuono presented acceptance remarks which will be published in the Public Law Section’s October newsletter. Among his comments, Colantuono stated: “Good lawyers help clients attain their own goals and, of course, the goal of the agencies we serve is not profit or market advantage but effective, efficient public service and, indeed, democracy itself.”

Colantuono has taken a leadership role in advocating for local governments in the area of municipal revenues, leading the committee which drafted and negotiated the Proposition 218 Omnibus Implementation Act. He also served on the committee which wrote the League of California Cities Proposition 218 Implementation Guide in 1997. He has argued before the California Supreme Court on behalf of public entities on three occasions since 2004, most recently in Greene v Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in which the Supreme Court upheld a disputed flood control fee earlier this year. Colantuono’s firm will appear before that Court in Ardon v. City of Los Angeles again later this year.

The annual Public Lawyer of the Year Award recognizes an exceptional lawyer who has dedicated a significant portion of his or her career to public service. Award recipients are lawyers who represent the highest level of professional and ethical standards and who are inspirational advocates for the public interest. Typically a local government lawyer is recognized in even-numbered years and state attorneys are honored in odd-numbered years, so this award recognizes Colantuono as the most outstanding local government lawyer in California over the past two years.

Colantuono said: “I am deeply honored by this recognition, both because it is the most significant award granted to a public lawyer in California and because it reflects a judgment of my professional peers, which is deeply gratifying. I am grateful to the Public Law Section for this honor.”

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