Can elected officials in Orange County serve in two positions at once?
That’s a question California Attorney General Rob Bonta is sending to the courts for the second time in about a month.
Both suits revolve around the Orange County Board of Education, a traditionally overlooked panel that has shot into the local spotlight over the last two years for its controversial stances on masking and COVID-19 regulations.
Beckie Gomez serves two roles in Orange County government: she’s a trustee for the board of education, and she’s a member of the Tustin City Council.
But some of her constituents are questioning if that creates a conflict of interest between the two boards.
Mike Tardif, a candidate for State Assembly who’s endorsed by the county Republican Party, filed a suit against Gomez asking that question and asked for Bonta’s permission to sue under “quo warranto,” which allows private citizens to sue on behalf of the state.
On May 5, Bonta granted a “quo warranto” action to proceed against Gomez arguing that it’s in the public interest for the lawsuit to proceed and that there are several instances when the duties of a city council member and board of education member do in fact clash.
“The two governing bodies could: differ on the location of school sites within the dual officeholder’s city; attempt to use their powers of eminent domain to condemn and acquire the same (or each other’s) real property … or disagree on matters relating to school district reorganizations,” reads Bonta’s opinion on granting the quo warranto.
A “quo warranto” is a formal inquiry into whether a person, in this case Gomez, has the legal right to hold the public office they occupy, and must be approved by the attorney general’s office.
While Bonta’s approval of the quo warranto suit doesn’t offer any discussion on the merits of the case, it points out there is a “substantial legal issue as to whether Gomez is simultaneously holding incompatible public offices.”
According to Bonta’s decision, Gomez argued that there was no incompatibility between the two jobs, and that the public interest weighed against Tardif suing her, but Bonta overruled her concerns.
That leaves Gomez with two options: resign, or fight Tardif in court for the right to keep her seat on her own dime. Gomez did not respond to requests for comment from Voice of OC.
This isn’t the first time a member of the board of education has faced this problem.
It’s come up three times now in the span of a year.
Last year, Bonta approved a suit brought by Melissa Louden, a Fullerton resident, alleging Tim Shaw had a conflict of interest because he sat on both the board of education and the La Habra City Council.
At the time, Shaw said the suit against him had no factual basis and that the two positions had never overlapped during his tenure on either panel.
“They’re arguing as long as we can dream up a hypothetical, no matter how remote the possibility of that event ever happening, if they can dream it up that’s enough I should be forced off one of the offices,” Shaw said last November.
Gomez agreed with that statement according to Bonta, who wrote that she “disagrees with our prior opinion granting leave to sue against Shaw.”
Rather than fight the issue out in court, Shaw resigned from his elected seat on the board and his seat on the city council in early November 2021.
In December, the OC Board of Education appointed him to the seat he had just vacated.
At that point, Shaw was sued again, and Bonta granted a request by Michael Sean-Wright, against Shaw to sue him for improperly holding office.
In late April, Orange County Superior Court Judge Martha Gooding ruled to temporarily remove Shaw from the board just days before Bonta granted the lawsuit against Gomez and about a month away from the election.
Elections for the board of education are already underway, with ballots sent out to Orange County voters next week, with results expected on June 7.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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