Orange City Councilman Mike Alvarez won an extra term in office that he wasn’t eligible for under the city’s term limits policy, an Orange County judge has ruled.
Alvarez won the seat this past November, and is now on his third consecutive council term despite city law restricting elected officials to just two back-to-back terms.
His argument at the time was that a switch to district elections in Orange made his seat a brand new seat.
It’s not immediately clear what now happens to Alvarez’s council seat, or whether the ruling by Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott forces him to immediately vacate it.
The actual effect of Scott’s ruling is set to be discussed at the next hearing on Feb. 24.
To read the ruling: Click here.
Alvarez, reached for comment Thursday, said he’s currently weighing an appeal.
“I thought that the legal argument we put forward had a lot of merit,” he said.
Asked whether he thinks the ruling could result in his removal, he said “We always knew that could happen, certainly. We just wish this would have taken place before the election. We’ll see.”
“Mr. Alvarez was duly elected in a new district — he crushed his opponents and the ruling basically strips the voters of their choice. I think it needs to be looked at closer,” said his attorney, Mark Rosen.
Orange city spokesman Paul Sitkoff offered no comment on the ruling, reasoning the city isn’t a party to the case.
Scott’s ruling comes after an unsuccessful city council candidate last year, John Russo, challenged the validity of Alvarez’s election to a third term.
“In my opinion, this ruling should mean that (Alvarez) is off the City Council,” Russo said, reacting to the ruling on Thursday. “With this ruling, I don’t see him being able to stay on. Whether the seat is filled with a special election or is appointed, I don’t know.”
Russo said the ruling “sets a tone and message to our City Council that people are keeping them accountable to do the right thing.”
The questions over Alvarez’s eligibility were raised before the election, though officials in Orange apparently had no objection to Alvarez’s reelection bid as he appeared on the official ballot.
At the time, they offered no comment when Voice of OC sought a clear answer.
Alvarez won his District 3 seat in November with 50% of the vote, behind him was Russo with 26% of the vote.
“Contestant (Russo) has shown Alvarez was ineligible for a 2020 City Council seat as a matter of law,” Scott wrote in his ruling, which — citing sections of Orange’s term limits law that identifies what’s not allowed — continued:
“As of the 2020 election, Alvarez had both ‘served more than two consecutive four-year terms as a member of the City Council’ and ‘served more than six consecutive years as a member of the City Council’ … He was therefore ineligible from ‘serving an additional consecutive term as a member of the City Council.’”
Alvarez’s attorney, Mark Rosen, previously defended his client’s reelection eligibility, pointing to a recent move by the city to switch to district elections and move away from their old model of voters citywide electing people to office.
Rosen previously told Voice of OC the switch to district elections in 2019 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, and that the change to districting effectively creates a four-year gap.
Though Scott wrote Alvarez’s legal arguments “fall short,” arguing, in part, that the city’s move to district elections “left untouched” the city’s “plain prohibition” on more than two back-to-back terms.
“No absurdity appears from applying” the term limits law to the new district seats, Scott wrote. “Nor has Alvarez provided any persuasive extrinsic evidence the City of its voters intended redistricting to reset or loosen term limits.”
In any case, Scott pointed out that three new district seats will come up for election in 2022.
“Term limits will not bar Alvarez from running for one of those seats,” Scott wrote.
Asked to respond to Scott’s rejection of Alvarez’s legal arguments, Rosen on Thursday replied:
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.