A number of special elections and ballot initiatives will push on in Orange County despite local closures and government orders to limit public interactions, though county elections officials say civic engagement this year will have to work around health guidelines for social distancing.

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County Registrar of Voters officials say two politically-charged special recall elections in Santa Ana and Westminster will proceed on their set election dates as scheduled, and they’re still on track to finish certifying a referendum movement against a controversial apartments project in Santa Ana, as well as a movement to relocate a planned Veteran’s Cemetery in Irvine.

But in-person voting has been cancelled for the April 7 Westminster recall election while OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley and Santa Ana officials say they’re still deciding whether a May 19 special recall election in Santa Ana will follow suit.

“The generalized use of in-person voting may present risks to public health and safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and could risk undermining social distancing measures imposed by the State Public Health Officer, as well as other aspects of the response to COVID-19,” said Kelley, in a statement sent out March 23 cancelling plans for three vote centers for the Westminster special election.

Now voters can only participate in the Westminster election — where voters will decide whether to vote out and replace Westminster City Council members Kimberly Ho, Charlie Nguyen and Mayor Tri Ta — by mailing in their ballot.

The three comprise a majority faction on the council that’s been accused of a number of ethical violations throughout their terms and are opposed by a political group called Westminster United, comprised of Westminster residents and backed financially by a wealthy Vietnamese American entrepreneur named Kieu Hoang.

Kelley said the registrar had already received over 5,000 mail-in ballots from the Westminster elections in a phone call with Voice of OC on Friday last week.

To understand more about the Westminster special recall election’s political context and those involved, click here, here, and here. To view a list of all the candidates seeking to replace the majority faction on the council, click here.

Westminster voters can drop off their ballot at one of three ballot drop boxes, at the following locations, by 8:00 p.m. on April 7:

  • Korean Martyrs Catholic Center, 7655 Trask Avenue, (Btwn Hoover St. & Beach Blvd.)
  • Park West Park, 8301 West McFadden Street, (Btwn Beach Blvd. & Newland St.)
  • West County Professional and Medical Center, 14120 Beach Boulevard, (South of Westminster Blvd.; enter on 15 St.)
The Westminster City Council at its March 27, 2019 meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Meanwhile, cancelling in-person voting for the Santa Ana special election — where voters will decide whether Santa Ana Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias should be voted out and replaced — is “a possibility,” said Kelley to Voice of OC on Tuesday, adding that he’s “working with the state” to figure out what will happen.

“If that occurs, we will message via releases and social media,” he said.

“At this time (Kelley) believes that the election is still far out enough to consider the 5/19 special election,” said Santa Ana City Clerk Daisy Gomez on Tuesday.

Click here to see a list of and information about all the candidates running in the Santa Ana recall election.

Voters across Santa Ana will decide Iglesias’ fate on the council in the May 19 recall election, which was put on the ballot through a signature-gathering campaign financed mainly by the city’s police union.

Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias (left) at a Council meeting on Nov. 19. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The police union’s president, Gerry Serrano, has openly clashed with Iglesias as she took a series of positions against what the union wanted. Among the most high-profile was her vote in February last year against $25 million in raises for police officers that did not have an approved funding source. He’s denied supporting the recall over her opposition to the pay raises.

As for whether the November general election will be impacted, “We are in early discussions with the state,” Kelley said.

“The Secretary of State has set up a task force to examine the issues and I’ve been asked to serve on that,” he added. “Everything is early at this point in terms of plans.”

Referendum on 2525 N. Main St. Apartments

Meanwhile, Kelley said his office is still on schedule to verify a Santa Ana referendum petition — aimed at turning a decision over to Santa Ana voters on whether to approve a much-contested apartments project at 2525 N. Main St. — by April 6.

Kelley said his office is “still on track for that date.”

If the paperwork holds up to county officials’ review, it would put the fate of the project in voters’ hands.

The 256-unit apartment project — after much scaling down by a local development group– was approved for a second and final time by a thin 4-3 Council majority in January. Council members Phil Bacerra, Juan Villegas and Mayor Miguel Pulido were the “No” votes.

Lawn signs in Park Santiago neighborhood in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The apartment project has become the center of a years-long debate in Santa Ana over the role of developers in city politics. Specifically, the developers behind the project were publicly tied by Villegas last year to more than $320,000 in dark money spent — money spent from undisclosed sources — on the 2018 citywide elections.

Ryan Ogulnick, who’s been the public face of the developer side of the project, has repeatedly denied his involvement in the dark money campaign.

Ballot Initiative to Relocate Irvine Veterans Cemetery

County elections officials are also counting signatures on a local ballot initiative submitted by residents seeking to relocate a veterans cemetery in Irvine.

The Irvine City Council last July voted to place the planned cemetery in the Great Park, at what was originally supposed to be a golf course.

But an organization called Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery instead asked that the cemetery be relocated to an alternate 125-acre site, amid arguments on both sides for which sites could receive additional funding from the state.

They managed to collect over 19,000 signatures, 7,000 more than the requirement to place the initiative on the ballot. Kelley said that the registrar has until April 28 to verify the signatures, and that it will take most of that time to verify them.

If the signatures are verified, it could be placed on the general election ballot in November.

Currently the county doesn’t have a veterans’ cemetery, with the closest locations in Riverside and San Diego counties.

There’s one in Los Angeles, but there aren’t anymore burials taking place because it’s been filled.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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