Legal Worries Force Costa Mesa to Cancel Charter Meeting

Citing legal concerns, Costa Mesa officials Tuesday canceled a City Council vote on whether the city should pay a private firm at least $154,000 to conduct an election in June on its proposed charter.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, who has lead the council majority’s push for an expedited charter process, also said Tuesday that he now supports holding off on the charter vote until November, according to city spokesman Bill Lobdell.

City officials have been scrambling since last month to place the charter proposal on the June primary ballot after missing the deadline to file official election paperwork with the Orange County registrar of voters. Two courts in recent weeks have denied a request by city officials for an exception to the deadline.

The City Council was to decide at Tuesday's meeting whether to hire Anaheim-based Martin & Chapman Co. to administer the charter election in conjunction with the primary election, something that has been done in other cities.

However, beginning Monday evening residents began to raise questions about the legality of both the proposed decision and the meeting itself.

The official notice for the meeting, which was announced right at the legal deadline Monday afternoon, didn’t state at what hour the session would be held. The agenda simply said the meeting would be “immediately following” a City Council study session.

Local blogger Geoff West pointed to a provision in the the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meetings law, that requires meeting notices to “specify the time and place” of the session.

Concerns over the meeting’s legality ultimately persuaded the city to cancel it.

“There [were] questions about whether it was adequate notice for the meeting,” Lobdell said. “Given all the tendency for litigation around this issue, the city decided out of an abundance of caution to cancel it.”

Additionally, the deadline appears to have already passed for sending ballots to roughly 120 overseas military and civilian voters eligible to vote in the election.

Federal law “requires that state absentee ballots be made available to absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters at least 60 days before” elections, the County of Orange wrote in a court declaration last month. That deadline was April 6.

Costa Mesa also may not have followed its own laws, which require nearly all purchases of $50,000 or more to be submitted to public bidding.

And lastly, concerns were raised over a recent case in which the election consultants slated to conduct Costa Mesa’s charter election, Martin & Chapman Co., printed incorrect ballot directions that could have invalidated some votes.

In an election for Arcadia City Council last month, Martin & Chapman prepared Chinese-language ballots that gave the wrong instructions, telling voters they could choose up to three candidates when in fact the limit was two.

The city, which has a large Asian population, scrambled to warn voters of the error, which could have invalidated some of the submitted ballots.

“This is a major mistake … especially if it's going to be a very close election,” John Wuo, one of the candidates, told the Los Angeles Times.

The company then wanted to split the $10,000 cost of replacing the ballots because the city signed off on the translations.

— NICK GERDA

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