Mission Viejo City Council members chose the city’s first election map on Tuesday night after nearly four years of arguing about the process, but the fight over the 2022 election is just getting started.
The final debate boiled down to a map created by the city through their contracted demographer, Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Demographic Research, and a map submitted by resident Aramis Vela.
Residents heavily criticized the fact that despite promising the entire council would all be on the ballot for 2022, only the seats in new districts one, three, and five are set to go on the ballot, while the council members representing districts two and four get a free pass until 2024.
That means Councilmembers Greg Raths, Ed Sachs and Wendy Bucknam will be up for election this November, while Councilmembers Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell won’t.
One of the city council’s constituents is fighting them over this proposed extension, pointing to the 2020 extensions of three seats and asking state attorney general Rob Bonta to intervene.
The city was forced to move to district voting after a lawsuit filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Project argued the city’s at-large voting method disenfranchised Latino voters under the California Voting Rights Act.
Kevin Shenkman, the attorney for the project, has sued cities all over California with similar allegations including Fullerton, Anaheim and Brea, most of which have chosen to switch to districts to fix the problem.
While the city tried and failed for over three years to implement a system called cumulative voting, they gave in last July and began the process of establishing districts.
Council members didn’t spend much time debating the pros and cons of either map at their Tuesday meeting, but bemoaned the loss of their current system and the fact that cumulative voting had been pushed off the table by the California Secretary of State, who said in multiple letters to the city it would not be allowed without the state legislature’s approval.
“People came out overwhelmingly and said we don’t want to go to districts, stop!” said Mayor Wendy Bucknam. “We were trying to resolve that by doing these creative things cumulative … this council up here is not corrupt, but does creative things.”
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to move forward with the map the demographer created, which will allow all of them to run unopposed by sitting council members in separate districts besides Greg Raths and Ed Sachs.
However, Raths has already filed to run in the newly created 40th Congressional District, which covers cities including Tustin, Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo, leaving it unclear whether or not Sachs will face a challenge from him or not in November.
During public comment, residents were split over which of the two maps they wanted to see move forward, with a slim majority calling for the community map over the city council’s map.
“As a result of your selfish desires to keep your seats you’ve created a racial divide.” said Cathy Schlict, a former Mission Viejo mayor and frequent critic of the council. “The council’s going to do what the council is going to do, and the voters are going to do what the voters are going to do.”
Residents and the council were openly hostile with one another at Tuesday’s meeting, with Councilman Sachs mocking commenters who left while he was speaking and the entire council pushing back on what they called a campaign of misinformation.
Bill Curley, the city attorney and the city’s lead architect for the new voting processes, also pushed back on residents.
“Dear God, if I had half the power people think I did, things would be way different,” Curley said. “I don’t be the puppeteer – those of you who think that’s how lawyers work, quit watching TV.”
Neither Shenkman or officials from the Southwest Voter Registration Project spoke at the meeting, which Curley said indicates all the maps up for debate are legal under state law.
Councilman Raths took issue with their absence, questioning why they wouldn’t show up for the final meeting after all the work the city put in and comparing Shenkman to lawyers who sue grocery stores that fail to comply with disability lawsuits.
“Sue sue sue! That’s what I believe they do, they’re looking for a payout!” Raths said. “Had nothing to do with Hispanics being discriminated against.”
Other council members also questioned the goal of district maps, with Councilman Brian Goodell pointing out that no matter what map they picked, the Latino population would be outnumbered 3:1.
“If we’re taking this assumption Hispanics are going to vote for a Hispanic candidate and white people will vote for white candidates, they won’t win under any maps,” Goodell said. “It doesn’t work! It doesn’t work for the ‘injured’ party.”
Goodell mimed finger quotes around the word injured.
The map chosen by the city council had a lower concentration of Latino voters in three districts over the one supported by a majority of public commenters.
The discussion on district elections will return to the council after Curley writes an ordinance officially implementing the new map and staggered election system.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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