One Mission Viejo resident is now suing his entire city council, alleging they illegally extended their terms and should be removed from the dais.
The legal battle stretches across two legal cases, the second of which just got a sign off from California Attorney General Rob Bonta to move forward and question whether the council is illegally holding their seats.
The issue started after the council chose to switch to district elections after four years of trying to implement ranked choice voting instead.
In ranked choice voting, every councilmember has to be up for election at the same time, so councilmembers ran for two year terms that would set all five members on the ballot simultaneously for when they got the system approved.
But because they never actually implemented ranked choice voting, the council used that process as justification to extend their terms to their regular four years despite running for two year terms.
After the council did that in 2020, OC Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm told the city they needed to figure out a new election plan by 2022 no matter what.
“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 Schwarm.
Ultimately, the city council ended up picking a new district voting map in March and deciding they would keep their current staggered election plan, with three council members up for election in 2022 and the other two in 2024.
The suit brought by Mission Viejo resident Micahel Schlesinger argues that because the city signed Schwarm’s agreement that required all five council members to be up on the ballot in 2022, their decision to extend the terms again was illegal.
Schlesinger filed his first lawsuit against City Councilmembers Brian Goodell and Trish Kelly last month, after the council voted to extend their terms to 2024 since they’d only been on the council since 2020.
The second was a quo warranto suit against the rest of the council, which means it’s a lawsuit questioning whether or not they have the right to hold office and requires the sign off of the California Attorney General to move forward.
The sign off to move forward doesn’t mean the attorney general is taking a side on the argument, just saying it can move forward in court.
“We conclude that whether the terms of Councilmembers Sachs, Bucknam, and Raths have expired presents substantial questions of law and fact that warrant a judicial resolution,” Bonta wrote in his approval letter.
“It is a simple maxim in democratic government that an elected official holds office only for the term for which he or she was elected,” wrote Aaron Hand, Schlesinger’s attorney in the initial complaint. “But that is not the case in the City of Mission Viejo…the proposed defendants have usurped, intruded into, and unlawfully continue to hold office.”
Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley said the city was holding its ground in a text message to Voice of OC Friday morning.
“It’s not a surprise as the AG is not functioning as a decision maker … but instead ensures the issues have substance in and of themselves,” Curley wrote. “The City remains confident of its position and looks forward to achieving a positive resolution to the matter.”
There’s been other quo warranto suits throughout Orange County in the last few months.
Board of Education Trustees Tim Shaw and Beckie Gomez have been the target of similar lawsuits questioning their right to sit on both a city council and the board simultaneously, while Shaw was the target of a second suit alleging he was illegally reappointed to the Board after he left.
The Mission Viejo City Council meets this upcoming Tuesday evening.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporter and fellow for Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.