After over four years of debate, Mission Viejo is finally moving to district voting, but residents will have to move fast if they want a voice in the process.
The city has to move to district voting under the terms of a settlement agreement with the Southwest Voting Project represented by Kevin Shenkman, a voting rights attorney who alleged the city had racially polarized voting.
Shenkman has represented various groups in similar suits across California, and won in over half a dozen Orange County cities.
According to the schedule laid out by city staff at the council’s meeting on Tuesday night, residents can start submitting proposed maps for the city’s new city council districts as early as December 14, through January 6th, 2022.
On January 27, the city is expected to review the submitted maps and pick the top contenders. The final decision gets made on Valentine’s Day evening. By law, the city has to host at least four public meetings before the decision is made, but those have not yet been scheduled.
Some public commenters took issue with the timeline.
Cathy Schlict, a former Mission Viejo mayor and critic of the current council, asked why so much of the planning was being conducted during the holiday season, pointing out it may reduce public participation as people get caught up in the celebrations.
“This timeline will start the public process in December, when the public is on holiday mode, not paying attention or unable to attend,” Schlict said during public comments at theTuesday council meeting.
“This process has already started out very deceptively,” she said.
Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley, the city’s chief architect of the voting process, said those dates were only tentative, and that staff had not considered what would be taking place on those days when they created the schedule.
“We did dates off a calendar without looking at underlying dates, and recognizing that is another reason I’m looking into the ability to push things off a meeting,” Curley said in an interview with Voice of OC on Wednesday. “I tried to emphasize that those are preliminary, not cast in stone.”
Most of the city council’s focus during Tuesday’s meeting was on defending their efforts to set up a system called cumulative voting over the last four years, which would have allowed voters to choose the entire city council, receiving a vote per seat that was up for election.
The twist was that they could allocate more than one vote to each candidate, allowing someone to vote for a single candidate and push them higher in the rankings.
Those delays led to two elections where council members were on the ballot for two year terms, but ended up serving four-year terms because the city failed to implement the system.
“When this began, when we looked at it initially, we had a room full of people telling us to fight for at large, and do everything we could so people could vote for three council members,” said Councilwoman Wendy Bucknam at the meeting. “That was something that left an impression on us, we listened to what people said.”
Curley said it was always understood at city hall that those council members could end up serving four years if the city failed to implement the new system, but they failed to communicate that with the public.
“It wasn’t by any step an intentional misleading, sometimes you’re too close to the forest … and you miss some of those trees because in your head two years is tied to cumulative,” Curley said.
Schlict also brought up concerns over the city’s last foray into mapmaking with Map Z, an illustration created in 2018 to show residents what districts could look like.
That map has been criticized for years as an improper tool to keep incumbents in office, including an island carved out around the home of then Councilwoman Patricia Kelley, which excluded her from a neighboring council member’s district.
When those concerns were brought up at the meeting, Curley quickly dismissed them, saying Map Z was never seriously considered and that Schlict was just trying to stir the pot with her comments.
“We’ve had this conversation for three years and yet this speaker continues this lie, this misinformation she thinks is appropriate,” Curley said during the meeting. “Ignorance doesn’t make meaningful comment.”
In a Wednesday phone interview, Curley said the city’s goal with these new maps is to get everyone a chance to interact with them so there can be no question of impropriety.
He also pointed out that should residents decide to protest the map, they can always take the issue to court and overturn the city council’s selection, which happened in 2016 after the Fullerton City Council approved a map favored by the business community.
The superior court judge ordered more public hearings on Fullerton’s proposed district map, with council members ultimately picking the map many residents objected to.
“We want as much exposure, transparency, participation, all the above and any adjectives you can think of,” Curley said. “Everyone can get their hands on it so everyone knows it and there will be confidence in the process even if you don’t like the outcome.”