A state senator is joining the chorus of people wondering why three Mission Viejo council members were able to extend
their terms in 2020 without standing for popular election.
The council members were elected in 2018 to two-year terms, but decided to push off the re-election to 2022.
And now, it looks like the city council is thinking about doing it again, extending the terms of two incumbent council members who are presumably up for election this year.
Earlier this year, Michael Schlesinger filed a complaint to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, calling for the removal of council members Wendy Bucknum, Ed Sachs and Greg Raths for illegally extending their terms.
In a letter to Bonta early March, state Senator Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) is urging the attorney general’s office to consider the application and allow the resident to sue.
“Relator’s case raises a critical question for the City of Mission Viejo — whether a city can simply refuse to call an election after voters have gone to the polls expecting to elect members of their City Council for a fixed term … Those three council members continue to serve past their term, and this alone qualifies as a substantial question of law which calls for judicial decision,” Umberg wrote.
Although Umberg’s district does not include Mission Viejo, Jackie Koenig — Umberg’s press secretary — told Voice of OC that Umberg has been closely monitoring the situation in the city.
“When Senator Umberg was Chair of the Senate Elections Committee, he became aware of the issues Mission Viejo was having with implementing the California Voting Rights Act,” Koenig wrote in a statement sent to Voice of OC. “[He] remains concerned when any jurisdiction fails to follow state law.”
Mission Viejo is included in the 36th district, which is represented by state Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Hills). Bates did not respond to calls or messages sent Thursday with a request for comment.
In a response to Umberg, Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Daniels wrote that the draft opinion on whether or not to grant or deny the application is currently underway.
Council members Bucknum, Sachs and 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 alleged the city’s previous at-large voting system disenfranchises minority voters.
In order to cooperate with the lawsuit, the council had originally attempted to transition to cumulative voting — which gives people as many votes as there are city council seats up for election.
After state officials denied the city’s attempts to adopt cumulative voting, the city switched to district voting.
Now, the council is considering extending term limits again.
While council members 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.
Umberg’s letter also addressed the council’s decision to again extend the terms of the other two council members.
“But City officials have indicated that they intend to call an election for only three of the seats, and once again unilaterally extend the terms of councilmembers who were elected to two years terms according to a duly entered judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction,” Umberg wrote. “It has become crucial for the judiciary to address this issue, and ensure that the City of Mission Viejo has a properly constituted City Council.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.