Michael Colantuono
Michael Colantuono (Jeff Hendriksen)

Michael Colantuono, a municipal law attorney from Grass Valley, was elected president of the State Bar of California on Friday, making him the first openly gay president of the organization. He’ll be sworn in to office this fall.

Colantuono survived three rounds of balloting, with the board of trustees splitting its votes 7-7 between him and Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers each time. The choice of the next bar leader then fell to current President James Fox, who typically only votes to break ties. After the third deadlocked vote, Fox simply said “Colantuono,” and the tie was broken.

Appointed to the board in 2012 by former Assembly Speaker John Perez, Colantuono ran on a platform of maintaining an “improved” relationship with the state Legislature and generating “positive press for the bar and its good work.”

“I think we need to demonstrably respond to the Legislature’s stated concerns, to let them know we get it,” Colantuono told his fellow trustees.

Colantuono will take the reins at a time of change and turmoil for the organization. The Legislature last year failed to enact an annual dues authorization bill in an inter-house squabble over how far reforms to the bar should go. A state audit released last month found that, despite making improvements, the agency still hasn’t done enough to keep tabs on spending.

This year, state lawmakers are poised to enact legislation separating 16 specialty associations from the bar, leaving the main organization to focus on lawyer discipline, diversity and bias issues and bar exam administration. The bill would also shrink the number of board members to 13, make those now elected by districts appointed by state leaders and shift the power to name the bar’s next president and vice president from trustees to the state Supreme Court. The president would be renamed “the chair,” too.

Colantuono said he supports the legislation, calling it “political suicide” for the bar to resist the proposed changes.

“I don’t think we made a very good trade association,” Colantuono said. “Most of the controversies that we’ve been pilloried in the paper for come from the kinds of [things sections] need to attract the time and energy of these volunteers, like open bars and trips to Yosemite and the like. So I think the two of us will be more powerful apart.”

The Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider the annual dues authorization bill on Tuesday.

The youngest of 11 children, Colantuono graduated from Harvard University and earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. He is a name partner at Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, where he serves as city attorney for Auburn and Grass Valley as well as counsel for a number of special districts.

Todd Stevens, past president of the San Diego County Bar Association, was also elected treasurer of the state bar on Friday. Jason Lee, the bar’s current treasurer, became vice president-elect after running unopposed.