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City Council members in Aliso Viejo are grappling with how long elected representatives should be able to serve and how best to govern their city.
A November 2022 ballot measure could change just how many consecutive terms future council members can serve.
Council members voted unanimously at their meeting Wednesday to have the City Attorney Scott Smith draft up a measure to set term limits for elected officials.
They also directed Smith to draft up a charter city amendment for the June 2022 ballot that would allow those limitations to apply to themselves.
“I think it should be retroactive and the way to do that is to do it through the charter city in June, so that it could be retroactive to 2018 so we’re all under the term limits, it doesn’t seem right to me to basically push this out to 12 more years before it makes any changes,” Councilman Dave Harrington said in making the proposal.
Charter cities, like Santa Ana, have more autonomy for lawmaking, can establish laws and election rules unique to their area. While general law cities default to the state’s overhead government laws and guidelines for local municipalities.
Some say state law provides a loose safeguard against electoral abuse. The issue led Garden Grove City Council members to send a letter to state officials earlier this year to allow them to set their own tighter election rules.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Smith said that in a general law city, term limits can only be applied prospectively when first established but could be applied retroactively by becoming a charter city.
“If the council placed a term limit measure on the ballot in November of 2022, the council members elected in that election would be the first subject to the term limits,” Smith said.
“There are some charter cities in California that in fact have term limits that applied retroactively once they were adopted,” Smith said. “Any city charter has to be adopted, presented to the electorate and approved by the electorate in a local election.”
Smith said there is a downside to becoming a charter city.
“Where the charter takes you out of the general laws, you have to have a pretty thorough local regulation of the issues in question,” he said. “That would be the main concern. The charter just presumes that you’re going to be doing a lot to fill in the gaps that state law no longer provides.”
A discussion of becoming a charter city was not on Wednesday’s agenda but Smith said the dialog on term limits as part of a charter was acceptable.
“I wouldn’t want you to broaden the discussion of the pros and cons of charters, except the inquiry that you’ve had so far and I’d want to agendize something other than a charter provision about elections that was broader before you did that,” Smith said.
Either way, some residents voiced their support for term limits.
They say new people on the council will bring fresh eyes to old problems and not having these term limits makes them an outlier in the county.
“Most of the cities in Orange County already have set term limits on their council members. Aliso Viejo is one of the very few that do not have these limits,” one resident said.
Others pointed out that term limits create opportunities for new candidates to run and bring different perspectives to city leadership while making elections more fair and competitive.
“City Council needs new blood and fresh ideas and long term incumbents have an unfair advantage against a new candidate,” another resident said.
Councilman Mike Munzing acknowledged that advantage on Wednesday.
“But we show a history of being able to overcome that and win seats against sitting council members,” he said. “I looked city to city and in our city where everyone’s sitting now and who’s running and not running and who’s come on board. Just for the last 10 years, it hasn’t really been a substantial problem.”
The issue of term limits surfaced last summer when Tiffany Ackley, who is now the mayor, brought it before fellow council members at a meeting in June. The council then voted 3-2 to direct city staff to draft a ballot measure on term limits for the 2022 general election.
Ackley pushed for the November 2022 ballot measure after Harrington made a motion to have the city attorney look into putting the charter city status on the June ballot.
“That way should the charter city not pass .. this one will be on the November 2022 election,” Ackley said.
The November measure would limit future council members to two consecutive four-year terms followed by a two-year hiatus before a person is eligible to run again.
If voters decide to make Aliso Viejo a charter city, it would preempt the November measure.
A debate on how seats left vacant by elected officials should be filled has also played out in Irvine, Fullerton, Santa Ana and most recently in Costa Mesa where the City Council appointed Mayor John Stephens earlier this year.
As part of Harrington’s motion, he included that the draft for the charter city measure should include a provision to fill vacant council seats with an election and not by appointment.
“I know it’s expensive, but you know what, democracy ain’t cheap,” he said.
The council is expected to vote on placing both measures on the ballot when it meets in July.
Anthony Robledo is a reporting intern for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AnthonyARobledo
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.