A Superior Court judge Friday ordered Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido to sign the paperwork required for a June ballot measure on whether to switch City Council elections from at-large to district-based voting.

But it was unclear Friday whether the measure will go before voters in June, because the paperwork deadline was March 9 and the judge declined to order that the measure be placed on the June ballot, as the city requested.

Under the ruling from Judge Glenn R. Salter, the mayor has until 2 p.m. Monday to sign the paperwork: three City Council resolutions authorizing the proposed June ballot measure, which the City Council voted 4-3 to approve on March 6.

As it stood after the ruling, the measure is not on track to go onto the June ballot, because it missed the deadline and Salter found election officials did not act improperly when they rejected it. But Salter said he only was ruling on the specific questions presented by the city, leaving a potential door open for a further round of arguments by city officials and the mayor.

The city likely will pursue further steps to place the measure on the June ballot, according to Councilman David Benavides, who is among the four council members who support switching to district elections.

The stakes are high in the district elections case, with three of the seven council seats having no incumbent running in November. The three openings will lead to the biggest change in council seats in six years.

During a detailed 1.5-hour hearing Friday, Salter said Pulido did not have the authority to refuse to sign the council’s resolutions, and that the mayor should have gone to court if he wanted to challenge the legality of the council vote that put the issue on the ballot.

“[The] court finds that Miguel Pulido, as the mayor of the city of Santa Ana, did have a ministerial duty to sign the resolution when it was presented to him,” Salter said in his ruling, which he read aloud at the end of the hearing.

“He did not have the right, power, or legal authority to refuse to sign it,” Salter said. The judge ordered Pulido to sign the paperwork by 2 p.m. Monday.

The written court order tells Pulido, “YOU ARE HEREBY COMMANDED” to sign the resolutions, and to submit a written report to the court before the deadline saying what he did to comply with the order.

(Click here to read the court order.)

Pulido said in a text message to Voice of OC he would meet the Monday deadline.

But Salter said the county’s chief elections official, Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, wasn’t required to accept the paperwork when it was delivered to his office without the mayor or city clerk’s signatures, just before the 5 p.m. deadline March 9.

The judge said City Clerk Maria Huizar didn’t affirm to Kelley that the resolutions were indeed approved by the City Council. On March 6, three days before the paperwork deadline, the council voted 4-3 to adopt the resolutions.

“There is a ministerial duty on [Kelley’s] part…to accept and to process resolutions which have been submitted to him and that are in conformance with the [California] Elections Code,” Salter said in his ruling. “In this particular circumstance, it appears that the resolutions which were submitted had not been attested to by the city clerk.”

Therefore, the judge said, Kelley had no duty to accept the documents, and Salter denied the city’s request to require Kelley to accept the documents.

Salter said all that appears to have been needed for the measure to have been accepted was for the city to have attested in its submission to the registrar that the documents were approved by the council.

The Elections Code seems to say that all the registrar needs in the documents is that “it’s been adopted. That’s all it seems to say,” Salter said.

Pulido’s attorney, Mark Rosen, said the ruling means the district elections measure will not be on the June ballot. But it’s unclear if the case is over.

Salter said his decision was “limited to two very discrete issues” presented by the city: whether Pulido had a “ministerial duty” to sign the resolutions, and whether Kelley had a “ministerial duty” to put the measure on the ballot based on what he had received.

The city could ask for an additional court decision allowing the June measure, through a different set of legal questions about whether the mayor interfered in the election process. But the county’s deadline for sending the June ballot documents to the printer is April 13 and Kelley’s office needs time to translate it into other languages.

“I’m confident we’re going to do everything we can to follow through and put this measure on the June ballot,” Benavides said of himself and the other City Council members who support the measure.

“Clearly the mayor obstructed the process and the decision of the council. And the judge was able to see that, and [has] now obligated the mayor to follow through on what was his duty, which is to sign the resolutions. So the next clear step that the city needs to take is to now seek judicial relief to see that the registrar of voters…accepts these signed resolutions and places [the] measure” on the June ballot.

The four City Council members who support the June ballot measure – Benavides, Sal Tinajero, Vicente Sarmineto, and Jose Solorio – apparently had not given their attorneys direction about what to do next, and – as of several hours after the ruling – hadn’t scheduled a meeting to give direction to the attorneys.

Supporters of district elections say that system of electing city council members would be 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.

Before Friday’s hearing, about 30 people gathered outside the courthouse to support district elections in Santa Ana.

“We’re here to raise our voices against the attack to democracy and fair elections that occurred after the March 6 Santa Ana City Council meeting, when Mayor Pulido refused to sign the necessary documents to put district elections on the June ballot – after it was approved by a 4-to-3 City Council vote,” said Miguel Hernandez, a Santa Ana resident and executive director of the faith-based Orange County Congregation Community Organization.

Eric Scandrett, a 34-year resident of Santa Ana, joined a demonstration Friday, April 6, 2018 in support of district-based elections, in front of Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana. Credit: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

“For many years now, we’ve been hoping for district elections, and that’s because it’s very expensive for a resident…to run for our City Council,” longtime Santa Ana resident Dave Hoen said during the demonstration. “The reason it’s very expensive is [the candidate] has to cover the whole entire city. And as a result, he has to rely on special interest groups to pay for his election. And that’s not a good way to govern.”

“What happens is people that the residents don’t even know end up being elected as our City Council representative…The other issue is, we have a lot of good people in this city, who are capable of being council members, who don’t even want to be involved because it is so expensive, and because they don’t want to sign up to any special interest groups.”

Three of the Santa Ana council members have been pursuing district elections since late 2016, but didn’t have a fourth vote for a majority until March 1, when Councilman Jose Solorio officially switched to supporting it.

But Pulido, who opposes the districting effort, claimed the council’s 4-3 vote on March 6 was illegal, and refused to sign the paperwork before the March 9 deadline.

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

Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who opposes the way her colleagues put the district elections item on the ballot, said their rushed approach came back to bite them.

“That’s what happens when this council does things last minute,” she said. “We always screw things up.”

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

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