Aliso Viejo City Council Members are grappling with how best to govern the county’s youngest city.

Officials last week voted at a meeting to instruct city staff to bring back a resolution to put on the Nov. 8, 2022 ballot a measure to set term limits on council members as well as a measure requiring a special election in the case of a council vacancy.

Both measures, if put on the November 2022 ballot and approved by voters, would establish Aliso Viejo as a charter city.

“There’s a good argument, it’s not really clear case precedent, that a city charter — because elections are such a core power for charter cities — can include term limits that are retroactive,” said City Attorney Scott Smith at last week’s Wednesday meeting.

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Charter cities, like Santa Ana, have more autonomy for lawmaking, and 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.

The measure would limit council members to two consecutive four-year terms followed by a two year break before they could be eligible to run again. It would also apply retroactively to council members elected in 2018 and 2020.

At the same meeting, council members tabled a resolution on a ballot measure on term limits that would not create a city charter. That measure would have only applied the limitations prospectively if put on the ballot and approved by voters.

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The council also took up the matter of how to fill city council vacancies — a debate that has played out this year in cities like Costa Mesa, Orange, Cypress and most notably Huntington Beach following the resignation of Tito Ortiz.

[ Read: Huntington Beach to Appoint New Council Member, Reviving a Debate Other OC Cities Tackled ]

That debate will also take place tonight in Anaheim, where council members in that city are expected to decide how to fill an empty spot on the dais vacated by Jordan Brandman — following controversy over a vulgar text he sent regarding former councilwoman Denise Barnes. 

Currently in Aliso Viejo, the city council must decide within 60 days of when the vacancy occurs whether they want to appoint a replacement or hold a special election. If no decision is made within that time frame, then a special election is held.

This is the case in a lot of cities in the county when they are faced with the question of whether to fill a vacancy with a special election or by appointment.

In Orange County, the answer often leaves many residents upset.

There is now an effort to recall a majority of the Huntington Beach City Council following the appointment of Rhonda Bolton to the dais, the first Black woman to serve on the Huntington Beach City Council, to replace Ortiz.

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Others in Huntington Beach have criticized the special election route as being too expensive.

The cost of a special election is dependent on what other measures are presented on the same ballot.

“The Orange County Registrar of  Voters office did provide an estimate specific to Aliso Viejo so in the case of a standalone election …  the estimated cost is between approximately $234,000 and $269,000,” said Mitzi Ortiz, the city clerk.

She added if it is a consolidated election the estimated cost would between $75,000-108,000.

The draft measure that may be brought before Aliso Viejo voters next year would establish a charter dictating that the council must call a special election in the event of an early vacancy. 

If adopted, only the voters could change the rule in the future.

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Mayor Tiffany Ackley voiced support for both retroactive term limits and not having appointments but worried the ballot measure on vacancies would bind “the hands of future councils with a pretty expensive election.”

“There are circumstances in which we can’t imagine in which maybe an appointment would be better,” she said at the meeting. “Although I am very happy to tell you that if there were a vacancy now there’s no way I’d want to do an appointment. We’ve seen the shenanigans that happened in Huntington Beach and all throughout the county.”

Councilman Dave Harrington said democratic government carries a cost. 

“When we have appointments, it creates more of a mess, it creates less trust in government than just having an election would do, even though it’s expensive,” Harrington said at the meeting. “We have kind of a bigger responsibility to the people that vote, they have that right to vote for who represents them.”

Adoption of a charter requires the city council to hold two public hearings before the council can vote on a resolution submitting the charter to voters.

The deadline for placing a measure on the Nov. 8, 2022 ballot is Aug. 12, 2022.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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