A Mission Viejo resident is calling for the removal of three city council members who have been in office beyond a two-year limit, just as the city begins its switch to district elections.
Council members Wendy Bucknum, Ed Sachs and Greg Raths were elected to their council seats in 2018 – but they were only supposed to serve two-year terms, according to a 2018 stipulated judgment from OC Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm.
That judgment stems from a 2018 Voting Rights Act lawsuit, which alleges the city’s current at-large voting system disenfranchises minority voters.
Now, resident Michael Schlesinger filed a complaint to the California Attorney General Rob Bonta, alleging council members illegally extended their term limits.
“Although Defendants’ terms were to expire in December 2020, City did not adopt a resolution calling the election for Defendants’ seats. Instead, the City only issued a call to election for the other two city council seats held by incumbents Brian Goodell and Patricia “Trish” Kelley,” his complaint reads.
In a 2020 ruling, Schwarm agreed to let the council members keep their four year term because they hadn’t finished revising the city’s voting system, but set a hardline of 2022 to resolve the issue.
It all comes as city officials grapple with the switch to district elections.
Schlesinger’s complaint also says that Bucknam, Sachs and Raths “were never re-elected to office following the expiration of their terms in December 2020.”
At the Jan. 13 council meeting, City Attorney Bill Curley dismissed the accusations.
“After a very quick review of [the notice] … we don’t necessarily agree,” Curley said at the meeting. “There’s some substantial problems with the allegations. It’ll play out in the normal course … the wheels aren’t flying off the car here.”
In June 2020, the council voted to extend their own terms, granting three council members another two years on council to put all five seats up for grabs in 2022, when the city is expected to roll out a new election model.
The city council had been trying to switch to a cumulative voting system, which gives people as many votes as there are city council seats up for election.
For example, if five seats are up for election, people will get five votes each and can use all five votes for one candidate, or spread them out between different candidates.
But the city ultimately decided to pursue district voting last summer after state officials denied their requests again.
Schlesinger’s complaint argues that city officials already knew the cumulative voting proposal was dead in the water – well before extending the terms of Bucknam, Sachs and Raths.
After the council voted to extend their terms in June 2020, they decided to implement cumulative voting in 2022, instead of the November 2020 election due to time constraints.
But the city had already received notices from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in February and May 2020, warning them cumulative voting was not an option regardless of the year in Mission Viejo after discussions between Padilla and Curley.
“Mr. Curley has not provided any legal analysis or information to our office supportive of a position that cumulative voting is currently permitted by a general law city,” Padilla wrote in his Feb. 25 letter, saying the city needed approval from the state legislature to try cumulative voting.
Despite this notice, city officials still moved forward with efforts to create cumulative voting in 2022.
This idea was officially nixed in July 2021 when the council voted to use the by-district election system starting in November 2022.
Mission Viejo Forced Into District Voting
The city is being forced to change to district-based voting from the previous at-large election system after being sued by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 2018.
Kevin Shenkman, the attorney representing the voting group, has routinely represented people and groups who sued cities throughout the state over the last decade under the California Voting Rights Act.
Most of the time, the cities facing the lawsuit eventually switch to district elections.
Locally, Anaheim and Fullerton were forced to switch to district elections under pressure from similar lawsuits faced by Mission Viejo.
Mission Viejo city officials have repeatedly stated that since minority residents live throughout the city — instead of one specific area — district voting would not solve the issue of racially polarized voting in the current system.
However, since state officials would not approve cumulative voting for Mission Viejo, the council was forced to implement districts to comply with the California Voting Rights Act and Judge Schwarm’s rulings
The city held its first district public hearing Jan. 25, when officials presented six different draft maps depicting five new districts. Five maps were submitted by residents and one map was created by Deborah Diep, a demographer from the Center for Demographic Research.
Some residents are critical of Diep’s proposed map, claiming it was purposely created to place each existing council member in a separate district so they can all run again.
“As I studied Map A made public on Dec. 14, I plugged in the addresses of the council members who were elected to run for office in 2022 and found that each of them was in a separate district. How convenient,” Mission Viejo resident Walt Lawson said at the Jan. 11 council meeting. “Who provided input to the demographer from the city? Could that have been the city council or maybe city staff?”
Diep clarified at the Jan. 25 meeting that she had no knowledge of the council’s addresses when creating the map.
“I was not provided, nor was my staff provided, addresses of where the council lives or even general areas,” Diep said at the Jan. 25 council meeting.
The five other proposed maps were submitted by residents. Most public commenters supported Map E, created by Mission Viejo resident Aramis Vela, because it has the highest proportion of eligible Latino voters when compared to the five other options.
The council will hold a second public hearing to view and revise the maps Feb. 8 and plans to have a final decision on the new district maps on Feb. 22.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.