With roughly nine months to go before November’s election, Mission Viejo City Council members are about to vote on whether or not they’ll be on the ballot this fall.
While Councilmembers Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell were elected to two year terms in 2020, the city council is now looking at potentially extending their terms to 2024 after the council’s plans for a new voting system failed.
However, the council signed a legal agreement in July 2020 that all five council members would be up for reelection in 2022.
In a phone call Friday afternoon, Robert Schick, the city’s director of community relations, said that agreement was only if the city chose to adopt a system called cumulative voting, and that the number of council members on the ballot would be decided by the council in the near future.
“My understanding is for all cities that use districts there are none that use one time voting for districts in their cities, but the final voting is up to the council’s discretion,” Schick said.
But the agreement appears to clearly state all five seats would be up for grabs this election year, regardless of the election method.
“All five seats on Defendant’s City Council to be up for election in November 2022 and every four years thereafter…the city shall implement limited voting or district-based voting in each election in the event that cumulatving cannot be implemented,” states the agreement signed by Judge Walter Schwarm.
It’s not the first time the city has made that argument to extend council member’s terms.
For years, the city has been trying to change its election system following a 2018 lawsuit alleging the city’s at-large voting system was racially polarized.
Every other city in Orange County who’s faced a similar lawsuit chose to implement district elections, but Mission Viejo leaders maintained for years that system would disenfranchise their Latino voters and instead sought to implement cumulative voting.
While Latino voters make up 17.7% of the city’s population according to the US Census, city leaders claim there’s no way to set up a voting district that would give the community a solidified voting voice because they’re too spread out throughout the city.
City officials were warned repeatedly by multiple California secretaries of state that it did not have the authority to implement the cumulative voting system without a vote by the state legislature, but continued pushing for it.
“The Secretary of State’s office DISAGREES with the City Attorney’s claim that cumulative voting is currently authorized under state law,” said then-secretary of state Alex Padilla, the state’s chief elections official, in a letter to the city in May 2020. “So to be crystal clear, I will state again that our office HAS NOT AGREED to draft or sponsor any legislation.”
But the next month, city attorney Bill Curley claimed they were “very close,” to implementing cumulative voting, and that with a judge’s approval they were pushing back the implementation date to 2022 because they needed more time.
Because the city wasn’t implementing cumulative voting, the council chose to extend the two year terms of Councilmembers Greg Raths, Wendy Bucknam and Ed Sachs an additional two years.
All three council members voted in favor of that extension as the council unanimously agreed to postpone until 2022, despite running for a two year seat and listing on the city’s website that they would be up for election in 2020.
During the council’s June 2020 discussion, Curley said multiple times that Councilmembers Goodell and Kelley, the two council members who were reelected in 2020, would only serve two year terms so that every seat would be up for grabs in 2022.
“There will be two seats up, those are presently occupied by the mayor and mayor pro-tem. Those will be for two year terms,” Curley said during the June meeting discussing the 2020 election. “In a sense nothing will have changed until 2022 to allow the right things to happen as they should.”
Curley declined to comment for this story, citing a busy work schedule, but did confirm the council was planning to only have three members up on the ballot in the 2022 election.
However, at the Jan. 25 council meeting, a presentation during the district maps public hearing said only three districts will be on the ballot in November, and Curley said he “anticipated,” the council moving in that direction at the end of February or early March.
Three council members – Raths, Sachs and Bucknum – will be up for reelection this year, while Kelley and Goodell may hold their seats until 2024.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm ultimately granted the city’s request to extend the three council members’ terms, but with a caveat – no matter what, they had to implement a new voting method by 2022, even if it wasn’t the one they wanted.
Following Voice of OC’s reporting on the issue, the city no longer lists the end date of council members’ terms on its website.
This extension has also sparked a complaint from a Mission Viejo resident calling on the California Attorney General to remove the three council members from office.
The discussion on term extensions also comes as the city is starting to look at its first district voting maps, hosting their first public discussion on the issue at their last meeting.
Five maps were submitted by community members, while the sixth was created by Deborah Diep, a demographer from the Center for Demographic Research who was hired by the city.
Most of the discussion at the city’s first public hearing focused on Map A, the map created by the city, and Map E, which was created by Aramis Vela, an electronic design engineer according to his LinkedIn page.
Most residents supported Map E at the Jan. 25 public hearing, and the council directed staff to make slight changes for the second discussion.
The city’s set to discuss the maps again at their Tuesday night meeting just after 6 p.m., including reviewing a revised version of Map E, with plans to potentially make the final decision on Feb. 22, according to Curley.
A previous version of this story didn’t include “terms” in the headline. We regret the error.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.