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Santa Ana has filed a lawsuit against Mayor Miguel Pulido, alleging he illegally refused to sign paperwork for a ballot measure that could change the way City Council members are elected.

The city is seeking court orders forcing the mayor to sign the paperwork and placing the district elections measure on the June primary ballot.

The outcome of the case will determine if the city’s voters decide in June whether to switch the city to district-based elections in time for the November election. A court decision is expected at an April 6 hearing or in the days that follow. Election officials say the deadline for printing election materials is April 13.

On March 6, council members voted 4-3 to put the measure on the June ballot, ahead of the March 9 deadline to submit the paperwork to county election officials.

But Pulido, who opposes the districting effort, claimed the council’s action was illegal and refused to sign the paperwork before the deadline to turn it in to the county Registrar of Voters.

That effectively blocked the measure from being placed on the ballot. The council – along the same slim margin – then voted March 12 to seek a court order forcing the mayor to sign the paperwork and getting the measure onto the ballot.

Over the next two weeks, both sides will submit written arguments and evidence to Superior Court Judge Glenn Salter, who will hold a hearing April 6 and decide on that day or sometime after. The case is “City of Santa Ana v. Miguel A. Pulido, Mayor of the City of Santa Ana.”

Whichever way the judge rules, the decision could be appealed, potentially on an emergency basis given the tight timeframe before the ballot printing deadline.

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 is fairer to candidates who aren’t backed by the city’s police union and other groups that can spend large amounts of campaign money. Under the district system, supporters argue, candidates could 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 when more people vote, not June. Opponents also cite the costs to the city during a stressed financial time, with voting on the district issue in November costing about $30,000, versus an estimated $202,000 for the June election.

Santa Ana’s city attorney, Sonia Carvalho, has said the council legally authorized the ballot measure. And even if Pulido believed it was illegal, she said, the mayor 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 when the council authorized the lawsuit.

“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.

“The Mayor has refused and failed to sign the Resolutions contrary to his mandatory and ministerial duty,” states the city’s lawsuit, which was filed March 14.

“The voters have a right to have their voices heard on this important issue involving one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship, and to do so at the June 2018 election as a majority of the City Council has expressly authorized,” it adds. “The Mayor’s failure to sign the resolution frustrates the will of the people because it is in effect a veto on the City Council’s action.”

Pulido so far has declined to publicly say which laws he believes the council violated when it authorized the ballot measure. He has until March 30 to submit his arguments in writing to the court, one week after the city presents its detailed arguments.

But arguments supporting the mayor’s case have been filed by his attorney, Mark Rosen, on behalf of two residents who say the council acted illegally when it approved the ballot measure.

“The City is proposing to expend funds for a special election, and the expenditure violates the laws of the City,” states the court filing from the residents, Tim Rush and Debbie McEwen.

They argue city law requires authorization from five council members in order to pay for the roughly $202,000 cost of the ballot measure, yet only four council members voted for it.

Carvalho, the city attorney, has disagreed with that contention, saying the money source the council members used – the Liability & Property Fund – requires the support of only four council members.

“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, at last week’s council meeting.

Rush and McEwen, meanwhile, say it was an improper use of the liability fund to pay for a special election and demographer.

The two residents have asked to be added to the lawsuit, which Salter could decide sometime next week.

The April 6 court hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. in Salter’s courtroom, C-22, in the Superior Court building across from Santa Ana City Hall.

Additionally, members of the public can submit ballot arguments for and against the measure by March 27, with rebuttals due by April 6.

One of the mayor’s colleagues joked at this week’s City Council meeting that the mayor was keeping lawyers busy. It came as the councilman, Vicente Sarmiento, who supports the ballot measure, recognized a summer jobs program for youth interested in becoming attorneys.

“I know our mayor loves lawyers, by the way,” Sarmiento said, turning to the mayor and smiling. “He keeps ‘em employed, and keeps ‘em busy.”

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

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