Preliminary Ruling Against Costa Mesa in Charter Case

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A Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling Monday denying Costa Mesa’s request to put a proposed charter on the June ballot despite missing its legally mandated submission deadline.

In his preliminary ruling, Judge Franz Miller emphasized that the deadline is mandatory, questioned Costa Mesa’s use of its city clerk as the lawsuit’s plaintiff and said the city hasn’t shown it would suffer irreparable harm if the charter instead appears on the November ballot.

The city’s “attempt to create dichotomy between [the city] clerk and [legal] counsel is clever, but unsuccessful,” the tentative ruling states. Costa Mesa also hasn’t shown that the county’s top election official had a “mandatory duty” to approve the late charter submission, according to Miller.

The main arguments in the case are scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, after which Miller could either formalize his decision or reverse it.

State law requires charter proposals to be officially submitted at least 88 days before an election. The law was enacted in response to the city of Bell scandal, in which city officials awarded themselves massive salaries thanks in part to a charter that was approved by less than 1 percent of the city’s residents.

The city’s legal deadline to submit charter paperwork for the June ballot was Friday, March 9, but county election officials didn’t receive it until the following Monday, March 12. The city attributed the missed deadline to a misunderstanding by the city clerk and is asking the court to order election officials to place the charter on the June ballot anyway.

In addition to his tentative ruling, Judge Miller also agreed to hear arguments Tuesday from four Costa Mesa residents about why they believe the charter should not appear on the June primary ballot.

The residents argued that they have an interest in the case because the missed deadline has shortened, by more than two weeks, the time they have to mount a campaign against the measure.

“Time is gone. Your honor can’t get it back. We can’t get it back. And it benefits the other side,” said attorney and Costa Mesa resident John Stephens.

An attorney for the city, meanwhile, argued that the residents had “no direct or indirect interest” in whether the charter goes on the June ballot.

“None of the prongs [for intervention] are met here,” said John Vogt, an attorney with the Jones Day law firm, which is charging the city almost $500 an hour per attorney for legal services.

The residents who sought permission to make arguments are Stephens, Katrina Foley, Billy Folsom and Mary Spadoni. Foley and Stephens represented themselves in court.

Outside intervenors in a case like this are required to show that they have a stake in the outcome. Judge Miller initially opposed allowing the residents to be involved, saying that “at least directly, the proposed intervenors don’t gain or lose anything” by his ultimate ruling in the case.

But after more than an hour and a half of discussion, Miller decided that the residents are “sufficiently interested” in the issue to present their arguments at the main hearing on Tuesday.

The residents “represent the voice that is missing from these proceedings,” said Foley, a former Costa Mesa City Council member and current school board trustee.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

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