Garden Grove officials want to crack down on carpetbaggers — people who seek public office in an area they’re not from or with which they have no connection.
But the City Council, which under state law doesn’t have the autonomy to set tighter local election rules on its own, needs help from lawmakers in Sacramento.
And what council members are set to ask for at Tuesday’s meeting could have sweeping effects up and down California, far beyond this Orange County city.
Up for council approval is a letter to state officials pushing for legislation allowing “general law” cities across California, such as Garden Grove, to set their own, tighter rules on the amount of time candidates need to have lived in the area that they’re running to represent.
General law cities are those that default to the state’s overhead government laws and guidelines for local municipalities, which — in the case of election rules — only require local candidates to have been residents of the right area on the day they file papers to run for office.
Thus Garden Grove, and other similar cities under state law, are bound by what some contend is a lax safeguard against carpetbagging and electoral abuse.
By comparison, other California cities that aren’t general law, and instead operate off their own charter, have more autonomy for lawmaking, and can establish laws unique to their area.
Santa Ana, one of these charter cities, requires candidates for local office to have lived in the right area for at least 30 days.
Garden Grove officials’ Jan. 12 letter seeks the same residency restriction authority afforded to charter cities through legislation that would grant that ability to general law cities as well.
The letter is signed by Mayor Steve Jones, but the proposal was put forward by Councilwoman Kim Nguyen.
Nguyen raised residency questions over someone who ran against her in the November election, which she won and held onto her seat. Her opponent at the time, Huan Nguyen, declined to speak to Voice of OC when reached by phone Monday.
Garden Grove’s appeal to Sacramento comes after city officials learned they can’t do much when it comes to establishing stricter residency rules by themselves.
“A lot of people were asking us why we didn’t have this 30-day restriction in place like other cities,” said Nguyen. “We tried. We wanted to. But unfortunately, as a general law city, we’re not allowed to under the state’s laws.”
Jones’ letter argues general law cities like Garden Grove could benefit from the stricter rules, to “help prevent the appearance of impropriety whereby a candidate may appear to move into a district solely to seek election and not in the district’s best interest.”
Garden Grove is no stranger to incidents in which people have been accused of not living in the correct area they represented and ended up making decisions impacting taxpayers.
In 2016, council members removed a planning commissioner, Vu Mai, over such questions.
Nearby, a wave of false residency claims and fraud charges rocked the Westminster School District this year, resulting in the resignation of a second board member in eight years over such allegations.
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who purports to live in Westminster and holds the Board of Supervisors’ First District seat, has faced numerous questions over whether he actually lives in that area.
Voice of OC reported in September that a new complaint to the state Attorney General claims Do has been living at a home he and his wife own in the Third District, despite stating in election paperwork that he lives at a smaller, less expensive home in the First District.
And, in Santa Ana, with stronger residency rules in place than Garden Grove, former councilman Roman Reyna resigned from his seat in 2019, facing a civil trial and claims that he knowingly ran for office to represent a ward in which he didn’t reside.
Garden Grove’s letter argues “the democratic process is strengthened when residents feel they are voting for council members who truly live in their neighborhoods and understand their needs and concerns.”
The city’s letter is addressed to its area’s representative lawmakers in Sacramento: state Assembly members Janet Nguyen and Tom Daly, and state Senator Tom Umberg.
Nguyen, Umberg and Daly didn’t respond to phone requests for comment Monday.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.