The Mission Viejo City Council held the fourth of five required public hearings on a potential switch from at-large council elections to district-based elections, but resisted calls from the public to weigh-in and deliver their thoughts on the issue.
“We’re not getting a whole lot of information, but this is a public hearing, this is what’s supposed to be discussed and I would like to have some public information as to where you’re going with this,” former Mayor Gail Reavis told the council at it’s Tuesday meeting.
“The district website is poorly maintained. The letter of the law seems to be loosely adhered to. The spirit of the law certainly is lacking, transparency is missing and community outreach has been poor,” said another former mayor, Cathy Schlicht.
Council members Wendy Bucknam and Brian Goodell were the only two to speak publicly about the maps before the meeting ended.
“This council has an obligation to listen to the public’s input and not put undue influence on the public,” Goodell said during council comment at the end of the meeting. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that and not sticking our nose in front and saying go this way or that way.”
The first draft map -- called map or plan “Z” -- was created by the firm Center for Demographic Research. It drew the ire of residents because it carved up the middle of the city to put four council members, who live close to each other, in separate districts.
“I’d like to take that last plan Z and if I had a match, I’d burn it or shred it or do something with it,” Reavis said. “I think it needs to be done much more evenhanded in the sense that … it should be done with blindfolds on everybody.”
“It’s not the intention -- I can say for me -- to have that (map Z) be the map. That was the point to have people have a conversation about the map and it happened,” Bucknam said. “Before that map came out, this many maps came in (Bucknam held up her hand and formed a 0) that’s a zero.”
Over the last few weeks, 11 different maps have been submitted by the public. The boundaries range from following the local school district boundaries, to having four districts and one at-large mayor. Nobody’s sure which direction the city will go because council members have remained largely quiet on the maps.
The potential switch to district elections stems from a demand letter from sent over by Malibu-based elections rights attorney Kevin Shenkman, who was the attorney that made Fullerton and Lake Forest to switch to district elections.
“I don’t have a lot of faith that they’re (the city) going to be drawing the districts in an appropriate or fair fashion, but at the same time -- from a legal perspective -- there’s not a whole lot we can do about that sort of thing,” Shenkman said in a Wednesday phone interview. He added that using school district boundaries “are a good place to start.”
After the meeting, Mayor Ed Sachs told Voice of OC the process is akin to a court proceeding.
“It’s like a tribunal here with 5 judges … the judge doesn’t say anything until it's time to make a decision … You won’t hear me comment on one map or another.” Sachs said. “It’s a time for listening and discovery … We’ll have a full robust discussion up here at the dais when it comes time to do that (make a decision).”
Goodell said he would like more people to get involved in the process.
“We’ve been saying over and over, give us your input. What do you like? What do you hate? Some people have and a lot of people haven’t,” Goodell told Voice of OC.
But Schlict said the city has been trying to keep the public in the dark during the process and should have labeled the city council agendas more clearly.
“Agenda (staff) Reports used agenda title of ‘California Voters Rights Act’ which is misleading when the public would be looking for districting wording–Better agenda title would have been ‘Consideration of Transitioning to District Election,’” Schlict wrote in a Wednesday email.
Fullerton’s switch to districts was part of a court settlement, while Lake Forest’s switch last year came from a similar demand letter that claims there’s racially polarized voting in the city that disenfranchises the Latino community. Shenkman sent a similar letter to Mission Viejo Sept. 26.
The letters are the result of a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed in October 2016 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. The city can argue it doesn’t need districts, but all California cities that have disputed it have lost in court.
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.
MIssion Viejo’s 90 days were up on Monday and their final public hearing on the issue is scheduled for February 13.
Shenkman said nobody from the city called him about a time extension.
“But at the same time it’s not like I’m going to run to the courthouse on day 91,” Shenkman said. “I don’t see that there’s a real good reason to do that if we’re just a couple weeks beyond.”
Mission Viejo slowly came to accept the fact it had to move to district elections, Shenkman said, “but then adopt districts that are intended to thwart what is supposed to be the purposes of drawing the districts.”
Most residents who have attended the public hearings have expressed their opposition to the switch to district elections and said the city is homogeneous and that it’s impossible to draw up a Latino majority district because everyone is spread out throughout the city. Out of the 11 maps, the citizen voting age population of Latinos doesn’t exceed 20 percent in any district, while the majority are white.
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.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.