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An effort to have Santa Ana voters decide on district elections in June appears to have died after a dramatic couple of days in which the mayor refused to sign the necessary paperwork, a majority of council members apparently held an illegal strategy session via group text messages, and the county’s top elections official rejected a last-ditch effort to put the district elections on the ballot.

Council members voted 4-3 Tuesday to place the measure on the June ballot. But Mayor Miguel Pulido claimed it was done illegally and refused to sign the necessary paperwork in time to meet a 5 p.m. Friday deadline to submit it to the county Registrar of Voters.

So council members scheduled an emergency meeting for 12:45 p.m. Friday to seek a court order requiring the mayor to sign the paperwork and authorize a different council member to sign it.

More than a dozen community members showed up for the meeting Friday, with some submitting requests to speak during public comments, but the meeting never happened.

About 20 minutes after it was scheduled to start, city staff announced the meeting was canceled due to the lack of a quorum, the minimum four council members needed to start the meeting.

But the effort to get district elections on the ballot continued, even without the mayor’s signature. City officials submitted paperwork to the county Registrar of Voters, with no signatures from Pulido, but Registrar Neal Kelley rejected it around 6 p.m.

In his official response to the city Friday night, Kelley said the paperwork was rejected under state Elections Code because it was “incomplete.”

Supporters of district elections in Santa Ana argued it would reduce the influence of groups that can give lots of campaign money, like the city police officers’ association, by offering grassroots candidates a less expensive way to campaign, including walking door-to-door in one of six districts, as opposed to having to spend money on mailers to reach all of the city’s 98,000 voters.

And they said it would increase the voting power of Vietnamese residents on the city’s west side, whose influence currently is diluted in a city that’s majority Latino.

Opponents have argued district elections would take away the ability of voters to hold the entire council accountable, and risk lessening Latino representation on the currently all-Latino council. And they said the districting process was being rushed by its proponents, who didn’t seek public input on the type of district system to pursue.

Text messages surfaced Friday showing a majority of the City Council members apparently violated California’s open meeting law Thursday by using a group message to discuss strategy for Friday’s emergency meeting.

“Have Michelle sign it I’m sure she’s not as frickin petty and childish as the mayor,” Councilman Sal Tinajero wrote in the Thursday morning group thread, referring to Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who also serves as the mayor pro tem.

“What are our options? Does someone else have [authority] to sign (ie Mayor [pro tem])? Do we need to [go to] the Court this morning and file a writ to compel [the mayor] to sign?” added Councilman David Benavides.

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento chimed in: “I don’t think Michele can sign [resolutions]. Sonia suggests we consider filing a writ to compel Miguel to sign. In the alternative, can we call for special meeting to delegate attestation authority to member of the Council to sign [resolutions] if Miguel refuses to sign? These are both very time sensitive.”

The thread included all six council members, but not Pulido, according to one of the text messages in the thread.

After the thread was forwarded to Pulido, a lawyer sent Santa Ana’s city attorney an email alleging the conversation was illegal.

“It has come to our attention that the special meeting called for tomorrow was convened in violation of the Brown Act,” said Mark Rosen, a Santa Ana-based election law attorney, in his email to City Attorney Sonia Carvalho on Thursday afternoon.

“Even if four councilmembers could coordinate together in an email or text chain to set a meeting (rather than having the city clerk contact them separately), we believe that the communication chain in this instance went beyond merely setting a meeting. There were strategy discussions in the chain about seeking writ relief, discussing the merits of the proposal, and making derogatory remarks about Mayor Pulido. The meeting tomorrow arises from a Brown Act violation and is therefore illegal.”

Rosen also alleged the council’s district elections effort was illegal on two more fronts: that they were violating public hearing requirements for district elections under state law, and were illegally using litigation money to get around a five-member vote requirement for a mid-year budget allocation for the ballot measure.

“We will seek court relief if necessary,” Rosen said. “The council majority’s rush to force this onto the June ballot to meet their personal political desires is no excuse to make illegal expenditures, violate the [California Voting Rights Act], and violate the Brown Act. The council should reconsider, find a proper source of expenditures, and wait until November.”

Kelly Aviles, an attorney and expert on the Brown Act who is also Voice of OC’s chief litigator, reviewed the group text messages and said their discussion of specific possible actions violated the state’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.

“These are not permitted at all, to discuss our options…should we do ‘X,’ should we do ‘Y,’ ” Kelly said. A majority of the council members “cannot discuss that” outside of a meeting for which the public has been provided advanced notice, she said.

A person close to City Hall, who defended the legality of the message thread, said the usual practice is, once council members say they want to schedule a meeting, the timing of the meeting is coordinated with council members via email or text. Council members are mindful they can’t have talks outside publicly-noticed meetings that seek a consensus on the outcome of a meeting, the person said.

Martinez, the councilwoman who opposed the ballot measure and was included in the group text, said she believed the conversation did in fact violate the Brown Act.

“There was a [violation]. That’s a serial meeting,” Martinez said in an interview Friday. “That’s a policy discussion, obviously.”

While the public waited for the meeting to start, the lawyer challenging the legality of the council’s action, Rosen, appeared to provide updates to a police union representative who was in the chambers.

Asked if he was hired by the police union, Rosen said he was not. Asked who hired him, he said it was “just a local citizen.”

After the meeting was cancelled Friday, Rosen told a Voice of OC reporter he doesn’t believe the district elections measure will move forward onto the June ballot.

“I would challenge it if they did [try to put it on the June ballot],” Rosen said.

And the effort to get the measure on the ballot may not be over. A source close to the situation said there may be an effort early next week to get a judge to allow the ballot measure to proceed.

Supporters of the ballot measure say the mayor is required by the city charter to sign the paperwork, and that doing otherwise is abusing his ministerial duty to sign it.

Pulido, meanwhile, said in a text message Friday he didn’t sign the ballot measure paperwork because he believed it was illegally approved on Tuesday.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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