A Mission Viejo resident is challenging two council members after they announced they won’t be up for reelection until 2024, despite both being elected for two-year terms in 2020.
Councilmembers Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell were elected to two-year terms in 2020, but their seats won’t be contested this year. The city’s new election ordinance describes that only three seats will be on the ballot this year.
The council signed a legal agreement in July 2020 that all five council members would be up for reelection in 2022, and Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger is attempting to make council members stick to this agreement with a legal complaint served to the city in April.
When the city adopted its district maps and finalized its transition to district voting on March 8, they also announced that Kelley and Goodell’s districts wouldn’t be up for reelection until 2024.
“The (March 8) ordinance makes clear that the City will not call an election for the expiring seats of council members Kelley and Goodell,” the complaint reads. “This hastily adopted ordinance that purports to avoid placing those seats (or districts corresponding to them) up for election in November 2022 is invalid. By failing to call elections for all five city council seats, as required by the Amended Stipulated Judgment, the City is acting illegally.”
The complaint calls for all five council seats to be on the ballot this November.
Schlesinger has also filed a complaint to California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office calling for the immediate removal of the other three council members who are up for reelection this year.
Council members Wendy Bucknum, Ed Sachs and Greg Raths were elected to their council seats in 2018, but were only supposed to serve two-year terms. They extended their terms in 2020 while the council was in the process of deciding a new election method.
That complaint claims that council members Bucknum, Sachs and Raths illegally extended their terms and calls for the three members’ immediate removal from council.
After legal threats forced the city to move away from at-large voting, Mission Viejo tried to implement cumulative voting.
In at-large elections, voters across the city can vote for as many candidates as there are council seats up for grabs. For example, if three seats are up for election, voters can vote for three candidates – the top three vote-getters are then elected to those seats.
Cumulative voting 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 state officials told city council members that cumulative voting wouldn’t work.
Instead, council members decided to adopt district elections in late 2021. In by-district elections, residents can only vote for a candidate who lives in their district – only having a say on who gets to sit on one of the seats at the dais.
Critics of the council say that city officials knew cumulative voting wouldn’t work from the beginning and the process was instead intended to strategically allow the council members to continue serving without having to stand for another election.
Schlesinger’s new case is an attempt to prevent Kelley and Goodell from extending their terms to 2024.
“By unanimous vote, the City Council adopted an ordinance allowing two Council members, Mr. Goodell and Ms. Kelley, to remain in office for two years beyond their elected terms, which expire in December 2022,” Aaron Hand, Schlesinger’s legal representative, wrote in an April 13 letter to the attorney general’s office.
“The result is that Relator Michael Schlesinger together with about 40% of Mission Viejo’s population will be deprived of the right to vote in their newly created districts in the forthcoming November 2022 election.”
Schlesinger resides in District 2 in Mission Viejo — one of the districts that would not be on the ballot this year if Kelley and Goodell postpone their reelection.
While the two cases brought by Schlesinger are similar and related, Hand emphasized the unique differences.
“The case that Mr. Schlesinger filed last week is not at issue in the instant quo warranto proceeding (an effort to remove someone from office),” Hand wrote. “While we are challenging the City’s failure to call elections for future vacancies on the City Council, that does not change the fact that Mr. Sachs, Ms. Bucknam, and Mr. Raths continue to unlawfully hold their office on the City Council, and need to be removed.”
State Senator Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) also sent a letter to the attorney general’s office, urging the state’s top prosecutor to examine the issue.
“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 council members who were elected to two year 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.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the two council members were elected in 2022 — they were elected in 2020. We regret the error.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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