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Santa Ana city officials are seeking a court order that would require Mayor Miguel Pulido to sign paperwork for a June ballot measure asking voters if they want to change how they elect City Council members and switch to district-based voting. 

The case could be filed in Superior Court as soon as Tuesday.

The directive to pursue legal action was made at an emergency City Council meeting Monday, and comes amid a dramatic back-and-forth over whether Santa Ana voters will decide whether to change how they elect City Council members in time for the next city election in November.

In the current at-large system, voters from across the whole city vote for all six council members. With district elections, as in Anaheim, council members are elected only by the voters within a specific district.

Supporters of district elections say it’s fairer to candidates who don’t have a lot of campaign money, enabling them to reach a higher share of voters by walking door-to-door as opposed to relying on expensive citywide mass mailing campaigns. And they say it would provide better representation for Vietnamese residents on the city’s west side.

Opponents say district elections would lead to less accountability, that council members approved the measure illegally, and that it makes more sense to have voters decide in November, not June. Voting on the district issue in November would cost about $30,000, as opposed to $202,000 for the June election.

Council members voted 4-3 on March 6 to place the measure on the June ballot. But Pulido, who opposes the districting effort, claimed the vote was illegal and refused to sign the paperwork before Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline to turn it in to the county Registrar of Voters.

Council members scheduled an emergency meeting for Friday afternoon to try to resolve the issue. But they were caught conducting an apparently illegal strategy session via text message, and then didn’t go to the emergency meeting.

City officials turned in the paperwork anyway – without the mayor’s signature – and it was rejected for being incomplete.

Over the weekend, council members scheduled a new emergency meeting for Monday afternoon to try to move forward with the ballot measure.

At Monday’s meeting, the city attorney said the council legally authorized the ballot measure. And even if Pulido believed it was illegal, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said, he still had to sign the documents.

“The city charter provides that the mayor shall sign all resolutions and ordinances. There are no exceptions to that rule,” Carvalho said.

“The city charter does not vest our mayor with veto power. Our charter does not empower the mayor to decide what is illegal or legal, and then refuse to take action – regardless of how he personally feels [about] an action,” she said.

The proper venue for the mayor to raise objections is in court, Carvalho said.

“And the courts do not look favorably on…mayors who take the law into their own hands. There’s lots of case law on this issue, particularly in the area of elections,” she said.

Pulido didn’t attend Monday’s meeting, and didn’t return a Voice of OC phone call and message asking for his response.

Council members voted 4-0 Monday to have outside attorneys for the city seek a court order requiring Pulido to sign the ballot measure paperwork and have the county Registrar of Voters accept the documents for the June primary election.

Voting in favor were Sal Tinajero, David Benavides, Vicente Sarmiento, and Jose Solorio.

The three council members who opposed the ballot measure – Pulido, Juan Villegas, and Michele Martinez – did not attend Monday’s meeting.

“We missed a deadline for somebody who deliberately abrogated his ministerial responsibility that’s required under the charter,” said Sarmiento.

“When somebody…thwarts the will of the council, [they’re] thwarting the will of the people, because this council represents the voters and the residents [in this] city.”

During public comments at Monday’s meeting, longtime resident Dave Hoen said the mayor is acting like the city is “a dictatorship.”

“So one person out of the body of seven [council members] can overrule…the majority vote of four. That’s not democracy. That’s a dictatorship,” Hoen said. “When one person says that something’s illegal – even though it’s been all vetted – and still says that that doesn’t count, that’s a banana republic.”

Others said the ballot measure is too expensive, at a time the city is rejecting other priorities.

“$202,000 would have filled a lot of potholes,” said resident Peter Katz.

He noted Benavides has complained about potholes in the city, Solorio has talked about wanting to hire more police officers, Tinajero has talked about programs in schools, and Sarmiento has talked about restorative justice programs.

“I commend the mayor for refusing to sign this [ballot measure paperwork]. I believe it’s illegal, and I think it’s returning us back to segregation. And I think that’s the wrong move for the city.”

The urgency of having district elections potentially in place for November is because there are three open council seats up for election then, Benavides said.

Mark Rosen, an attorney who’s challenging the council’s ballot measure effort, said their actions are illegal on three fronts: it illegally used public funds by not having support from five council members, violated public hearing requirements under the California Voting Rights Act, and the alleged open meeting violations last week meant they couldn’t meet Monday.

The mayor “has an obligation not to sign a resolution or an ordinance which would be an illegal act by the city. And I think he’s acted properly,” Rosen said.

The city attorney disagreed. Carvalho said the money source the council members used – the Liability & Property Fund – only requires four council members’ support in order to use it.

“Five votes [were] not required,” because the council was not changing the budget or transferring funds from other sources into the liability fund, said Francisco Gutierrez, the city’s finance director.

In response to questions from Voice of OC, Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said he wasn’t aware of any other court cases in California similar to the current circumstances in Santa Ana.

The deadline for printing the June ballots is April 13, he said.

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

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