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Orange City Councilman Mike Alvarez shouldn’t be running for reelection this year, according to the city’s current term limits policy for elected officials. 

But a look at Orange’s official list of qualified candidates for November shows he’s giving it another go — with no objections from City Hall. 

Officials there have so far been quiet on the subject, as some residents are likely already returning their filled-out mail ballots.

Gary Sheatz, the city’s top lawyer charged with ensuring public affairs in Orange are conducted in accordance with its own laws and the state’s, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment through his office and email.

Paul Sitkoff, the city’s official spokesman, declined to talk about this very legal question when asked about it by Voice of OC.

Alvarez also didn’t respond to repeated email and phone messages about this story.

His attorney, Santa Ana-based lawyer Mark Rosen, when reached for comment pointed to the city’s recent moves to overhaul its system of public representation during election cycles: 

Council members in Orange are, during normal circumstances, limited to two back-to-back terms on the council under the city’s current law. After their second term, officials can run for reelection again but only after waiting four years.

Yet Rosen argues the city’s switch to district elections in 2019 — which, like in other cities up and down the state, came after a legal challenge it faced under the California Voting Rights Act — possibly made Alvarez’s once at-large seat a brand new seat now that it exclusively represents a certain section of the city.

He also said that previously, the term limits policy only required a two-year gap between two back-to-back terms for a termed-out elected official to run for office again. That also changed with last year’s switch to district elections, now requiring a four-year gap.

Thus Rosen maintains “it’s a different seat than what it used to be.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Kevin Shenkman, the attorney who brought the legal challenge that moved Orange into district elections under the California Voting Rights Act, of Alvarez’s argument for running again. “The argument he’s making is absolutely ludicrous.”

The reason cities like Orange have term limits, Shenkman said, “is so fresh faces with fresh ideas can do something with the city. If he does win — then what? It brings the City of Orange into a legal mess.”

And possibly a dangerous precedent, argues city politics observer and Orange resident Adrienne Gladson, a mayoral candidate running in a race this year separate from Alvarez’s.

Even if the legal stance holds if Alvarez is challenged in court, Gladson said it goes against the spirit of — or idea behind — the two-term limit policy put in place by city officials in the mid-1990s.

“It just feels like the spirit of that purpose is being dismissed — the spirit of your oath of office to represent your community and be ethical,” Gladson said. “It doesn’t meet the goal that the community established by putting term limits in place.”

Rosen’s arguments behind why Alvarez can run again are echoed in a letter Rosen sent to Sheatz saying why Alvarez should make it on the ballot. The letter was released to some members of the public, who then shared it with Voice of OC. Read it here.

Alvarez was first elected to the council in 1996, and re-elected in 2000. Alvarez was termed out in 2004. Eight years later, he won a seat on the council again in 2012. He was reelected to his current term in 2016, which ends this year. 

His own biography on the city website cites the very term limits policy that would ordinarily prohibit him from running again this year, for three back-to-back terms. 

His opponents for the seat are Danett Abbott-Wicker, listed on her ballot designation as an “executive assistant,” and John Russo, an Orange Unified School District employee.

He’s fundraised $3,500 for his campaign, mostly from PACs representing the city’s firefighters and car dealerships, and loaned himself $2,400 so far, according to the latest campaign finance disclosures he filed with the city.

The questions about Alvarez’s eligibility as a candidate pose yet another litmus test this election cycle for the way the public processes and plays a role in Orange’s government. 

Also coming before residents this November is a controversial ballot measure seeking to authorize 128 low-density homes on an old quarry in the city’s east end.

The City Council initially cleared the way for the development despite heavy public protest in October last year, and the reason it’s coming back for a direct decision by voters is because enough residents signed a referendum petition earlier this year to put it on the ballot.

Opponents say it’s unwanted and poses wildfire, traffic and public health hazards. Supporters say it’s an engine of open space, actually relieves traffic as the developers have committed to funding additional traffic lanes in nearby streets, and puts money into the city’s wallet.

The company pushing the project, Milan Capital Management, has spent $700,000 in political contributions to the committee supporting the project, according to recent campaign finance disclosures, which is going to mailers and political consultants.

The committee opposing it, by comparison, has fundraised only $15,600 — much of it coming from individual donors and residents — also going to mailers and print ads.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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