An Orange County Superior Court judge has temporarily halted Garden Grove’s district elections process, after a community group and former city councilman filed a lawsuit challenging the elimination of an at-large elected mayor.

The city began the process of implementing a district-based electoral system in September after settling a lawsuit filed by Rickk Montoya, a Latino resident and city council candidate who alleged the city’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act.

The current proposal calls for a system where Garden Grove residents vote for five district-based council seats, and then the council members vote to appoint a mayor for a two-year term.

Judge Frederick Aguirre Tuesday agreed to temporarily nullify the terms of the settlement until a hearing for Feb. 23, according to the Orange County Register, which first reported on the judge’s action.

Read the full complaint: Central Garden Grove Neighborhood Association Complaint

Since the city agreed to the settlement, an number of residents have raised concern about the elimination of an independently elected mayor.

Citizens with the Central Garden Grove Neighborhood Association and their attorney Mark Rosen, a former Garden Grove city council member, say they want the court to decide whether the City Council should have deferred to a 1970s city ballot measure that established an at-large elected mayor.

“The council cannot undo something that the voters approved without presenting it to voters again,” said Rosen.

Maureen Blackmun, president of the Garden Grove Neighborhood Association and one of the residents behind the court action, said they decided to bring the issue to court because city leaders weren’t responsive to their concerns.

“The city never was able to articulate to the voters why we needed to give that option up…therefore without a clear rationale for giving up the choice, we went to court,” said Blackmun.

Blackmun said that, while they don’t object to district elections, they believe voters should have a say regarding the mayor’s seat. The group believes the new district-based system should expand the council to six seats, with five council members elected by district and a mayor elected at-large.

Kevin Shenkman, the attorney for Montoya, says electing any member of the council at-large would contribute to the dilution of the minority vote.

“To be clear, though, the settlement does not require a mayor to be
appointed from or by the council.  Rather, it only requires that all
members of the council be elected by districts,” Shenkman said in an email.

For example, the city could choose to have a model similar to the city of Los Angeles, where the mayor is elected at-large but is not a member of the city council, Shenkman said.

Shenkman said that while the court heard Rosen’s argument, and is procedurally required to temporarily set aside the settlement, ultimately it has “no basis in the law” and a local ballot measure can’t supersede state laws.

Garden Grove City Attorney Omar Sandoval told the Register that public meetings about the district elections process will continue.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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