A public trial on whether to remove Roman Reyna from the Santa Ana City Council was postponed Wednesday, and might not happen at all, after Reyna initiated last-minute negotiations to strike a deal to avoid the civil trial.
Both sides were tight-lipped about the talks, but they apparently include the possibility of Reyna leaving the council.
The lawsuit was filed by Phil Bacerra, Reyna’s only opponent in the November election for the Ward 4 seat, and seeks to replace Reyna with Bacerra.
The trial was scheduled to feature witness testimony and documents supporting claims Reyna was living outside the ward during a city-required residency period and falsified his home address on his candidacy paperwork and a “rental agreement” he provided the city. Reyna has disputed many of the allegations.
But as the trial was scheduled to begin in a Fullerton courtroom, both sides announced they had begun talks on settling the case, though details were sparse.
The lawyers asked Superior Court Judge Craig L. Griffin to postpone the two-day trial to Feb. 6 to see if a settlement could be reached before then, which the judge granted.
Bacerra’s attorney, Mark Rosen, told the judge there may be items on the Feb. 5 City Council agenda that “effectuate,” or put into force, the settlement, if a deal is reached.
Griffin, the judge, wished both sides luck in getting the case resolved.
The settlement talks were initiated by Reyna’s attorney on Tuesday, the day before the trial.
Reyna would prefer to settle the case, his attorney, bankruptcy law specialist Glenn Ward Calsada, said after Wednesday’s court proceedings. Asked if Reyna will remain on the council, he said, “that’s all up in the air.”
If there is a vacancy on the City Council, the council has a choice of either appointing someone or calling a special election to fill the seat, according to a person close to the case.
The outcome of the lawsuit could affect the balance of power on the council, replacing a council member who ran against a police union-backed candidate with one who was supported by the police officers’ union. At least one representative of the police union attended the court proceedings Wednesday.
Reyna and Santa Ana’s now-former city clerk, Maria Huizar, had been ordered to testify at this week’s trial until it was postponed. If the settlement talks fall apart and the trial ends up happening on Feb. 6, they are both required by court orders to testify.
A former Orange County judge faced criminal charges in the 1980s for falsifying her address on election papers in order to become eligible for the seat, and later was convicted of at least one of the charges.
The lawsuit alleges a scheme by Reyna to lie on his election paperwork to make it look like he was eligible for the Ward 4 race despite allegedly living outside the ward.
During the period Reyna was required to live in Ward 4 to be eligible for the race, he was registered to vote at an address in Ward 6 and filed a Planning Commission application to the city where he listed the Ward 6 address as his residence, according to the suit.
When the city clerk texted Reyna to tell him the address was in Ward 6, Reyna replied “What,” “Can u send me Ward 4 boundary,” and “Yikes,” according to screenshots released by the city and attached to the lawsuit. He later submitted paperwork alleging he had been living at a Ward 4 address during that period, according to the suit.
Reyna, in a previous court filing, disputed many of the lawsuit’s claims and said he lacks enough information to respond to others.
Santa Ana’s city charter requires candidates for a particular City Council ward to live in that district for 30 days before receiving nomination paperwork from the city.
In Reyna’s case, that was the 30 days between July 3 and Aug. 2, according to the lawsuit.
There is precedent for courts nullifying an election winner over allegedly falsifying their residency.
In the 1982 primary election, Orange County Municipal Judge Joanne Harrold won against her two opponents, but in response to a civil case was removed from office after another judge ruled she had falsified her residency on her candidacy paperwork.
Harrold later faced criminal charges for allegedly making the false statements and backdating a house deed to show she lived in Newport Beach. About a decade later, in March 1992, she was convicted of at least one of the charges, though details weren’t immediately available this week.
In earlier court filings, attorneys for the city argued the city charter establishes it’s up to the City Council, not the courts, to decide if council candidates are qualified to run.
But the judge said Santa Ana apparently has no process for actually deciding if a candidate is qualified, in contrast with a clear process for judges to follow under the state’s elections code.
“The Court is not shown where the City of Santa Ana has created procedures and a due process for an election contest for a city election,” Griffin wrote in his ruling last week.
“If it is within the sole [jurisdiction] of the local body, it is not shown that procedures have been established that govern the hearing of the matter, or that a due process has been created or has been followed in relation to the matter,” he continued.
“The Court concludes that it has jurisdiction to hear the matter. While deference could arise for the City of Santa Ana’s election contest procedures and proceedings, as required/appropriate under the law, there do not appear to be any such procedures in place, nor any proceedings commenced.”
At the time candidates filed for the City Council race, a majority of the City Council supported Reyna, and there were no known proceedings by the council on whether Reyna had actually lived outside the district.
If no settlement is reached, the civil trial on whether to remove Reyna now is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. on Feb. 6 and run the full day, resuming again at the same time the next day for its final day. The case number is 30-2018-01035769-CU-PT-CJC.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].