The Huntington Beach City Council decided Monday not to send a group letter to the state Coastal Commission opposing a proposed desalination plant for fear they may be sued.

Councilman Jim Katapodis' substitute motion to allow individual council members a chance to submit their own letter instead of as a group passed 4-3, with Mayor Connie Boardman, Councilwoman Jill Hardy and Councilman Joe Shaw dissenting.

The original intent of the item — introduced by Boardman — was to send the California Coastal Commission a letter asking them to deny Connecticut-based Poseidon Resource's coastal development permit. But after City Council received a letter from Poseidon's legal staff Monday afternoon, which they interpreted as a threat of a lawsuit, the council opted not to the send a letter as a whole.

"The prior council made decisions before [about Poseidon], but to me it wouldn't be good to open this up to litigation," Katapodis said. "Poseidon didn't say it exactly, but they certainly hinted strong enough… We should just [write a letter] on our own."

Christopher Garrett, a lawyer representing Poseidon, emailed city staff a letter Monday afternoon, stating they would "exercise its legal rights and remedies if the council were to take collective action to adopt the item," Garrett wrote in an email to Huntington Beach assistant city attorney Michael Vigliotta.

During and after the meeting, Garrett and Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni both reiterated that a lawsuit was never threatened.

"It was never our intention to threaten a lawsuit," Maloni said. "We needed to make the city aware of what we thought were our legal rights and what we thought would be inappropriate action on the part of the City Council."

Boardman said city attorney Jennifer McGrath told her if they were to write a group letter they might be in violation of interrupting due process.

But the mayor said she anticipated Poseidon reacting to her agenda item and was surprised that the rest of the dais was caught off guard.

"Of course they were going to send a letter threatening to sue us," she said. "I'm surprised the council got spooked by that. I expected them to send a letter threatening to sue us as part of their strategy to keep us from writing the letter."

There were over two hours of public comments from about 50 pro- and anti-Poseidon speakers Monday.

Many iron, plumbing, electrical and engineer union representatives said the Poseidon project would provide the city with more than 2,000 jobs.

"The last four years have been devastating to the construction industry," said Doug Mangione, a representative with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "We have journeymen and apprentices ready to go to work on this project; over 300 of them living in your city alone."

Representatives of U.S Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) , Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) and Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) also spoke in support of the desalination plant, saying it will help the city become less dependent on imported water and provide an economic boost.

Huntington Beach resident Armida Brashears said she was disappointed with the council's decision to send individual letters rather than the one that represented them all.

"A joint effort for the whole council has more power than an individual letter from each one of them," she said. "It sucks a lot of the power out of it when they're not able to do it as a body."

Breashears' friend Donna Heim agreed, adding that the city doesn't need any of Poseidon's water and that ratepayers would have to pay for it even if they don't need it.

"Poseidon wants to sell us this outdated technology to deliver to us water that maybe costs three or four times as much," Heim said. "Whether we need it or not, we have to pay for it 24/7."

Former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook told council members that she understands that decisions made by past councils can't be undone. She said, however, if the council sent the single letter to the Coastal Commission, it would've had great impact.

"What it would do, though, is send the message that no amount of public relations, lobbying and campaign donations can turn a pig into a pony," she said.

Cook said that there are more efficient and cost-effective alternatives to desalination, such as better conservation efforts and the Irvine Ranch Water District water banking in Kern county, which can store millions of acre feet of water and deliver it for less than the cost of imported water.

"The real danger from this project is the chilling effect high water rates will have on our economy," she said.

anthonyclark.carpio@latimes.com

Twitter: @acocarpio