Mission Viejo could move from at-large elections to district elections after a voting rights attorney sent a demand letter warning the city it is violating state law because the current voting system disenfranchises minorities from getting elected. 

“However, there are currently no Latinos on the City Council, nor have there been any in the last nine years. The contrast between the significant Latino proportion of the electorate and the near absence of Latinos to be elected to the City Council is telling,” warns attorney Kevin Shenkman’s letter.

But at the Oct. 24 city council meeting, former Councilwoman Gail Reavis said “I don’t see a need for it here, because I’m one of the two Latino people ever elected to the city council. We don’t wear it on our sleeve … I resent what this firm is trying to do to us.”

Mission Viejo joins Lake Forest in a potential transition to district elections. Other Orange County cities that have switched to district elections since 2015 include Anaheim, Buena Park, Fullerton and Garden Grove.

According to the 2010 Census report, there are 93,300 residents in Mission Viejo. Nearly 70 percent are white, 17 percent are Latino, nine percent are Asian and just over one percent are black.

Shenkman, from the Malibu-based Shenkman & Hughes law firm, sent his letter to Mission Viejo Sept. 26. He sent a similar letter to Lake Forest earlier this year and represented a plaintiff in a voting rights lawsuit against Fullerton that ultimately switched the city to district elections last year.

“The firm of Shenkman & Hughes is famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint. They’ve brought dozens of suits or challenges … to cities across the state under the California Voting Rights Act,” Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley said.

The letter was written on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and an undefined number of its members living in Mission Viejo. The Texas-based organization aims to increase Latino participation in voting booths and protect voting rights.

“Mission Viejo’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) — to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Mission Viejo’s council elections,” the demand letter reads.

The letter is the result of a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed last October that provides an out-of-court process where attorneys can work with cities to move toward district elections. Once the city receives a demand letter, like Shenkman’s, it has a timeframe to begin public hearings and study the city’s racial make-up.

Under the law, attorneys have to wait 45 days after the city receives the letter before they can take any court action. The delay is to give cities time to pass a resolution of intent to switch to district elections. The city received Shenkman’s letter Sept. 29.  

Mission Viejo unanimously passed its resolution of intent to move towards district elections Oct. 24 and now, according to the law, has 90 days before Shenkman can take any action against them.

The law also caps any fees Shenkman may charge at $30,000, as long as he provides the financial documents to support that amount.

“This is an unavoidable thing that the City Council has to undertake … I want the residents to know that we’re following procedures and we’ll stick to the letter of the law on this,” Mayor Wendy Bucknam said at the meeting.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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