Mission Viejo residents might get a rarity in local elections – the chance to elect an entire City Council at once this November.
Later this month a judge will decide whether or not two Mission Viejo City Council members will need to head to the ballot after a resident sued the council earlier this year claiming that all five city council members should be on the ballot for the November 2022 election.
The lawsuit stems from the city’s switch to district elections in response to a voting rights lawsuit, although the council spent years attempting to implement cumulative voting.
The city had previously decided that residents will elect council members in three districts, and the other two council members — who were elected to two-year terms in 2020 — won’t be up for election until 2024.
Orange County Superior Judge Walter Schwarm decided June 15 that since the issue concerns the election coming up within five months, the hearing will occur June 28 to allow time for public notice.
Resident Michael Schlesinger sued the city claiming that the council deliberately delayed the switch to by-district voting to allow some members of the council to stay off the ballot this year. Schlesinger’s lawsuit points to a legal agreement from July 2020 that states all five council members would be up for reelection in 2022.
“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 reads.
In at-large elections, residents citywide can vote for as many candidates as there are council openings. So if two seats on the council are up for grabs, residents can vote for two candidates.
In by-district elections, residents can only vote for one candidate to represent the district they live in.
The city claims the stipulated judgment was only valid if the city implemented cumulative voting, which did not happen. Cumulative voting would give people as many votes as there are city council seats up for election.
“Those two Judgements only require all five seats (now districts) be placed for election if the City implemented cumulative voting; they did not require all five seats be placed for election if the City implemented district-based voting,” the city wrote in an opposition filing.
Council members Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell were elected to two-year terms in 2020, but they unanimously passed an ordinance this year that wouldn’t put Kelley and Goodell’s districts up for reelection until 2024.
It’s the legal threat faced by the city stemming from elections.
The rest of the council members are also facing a lawsuit after California Attorney General Rob Bonta signed off Schlesinger’s request for quo warranto – the right to sue a public official for allegedly holding office improperly.
Schlesinger’s other lawsuit against Mission Viejo claims Mayor Wendy Bucknum and council members Ed Sachs and Greg Raths do not properly hold office because they were elected to two-year terms of office in 2018 and were never re-elected when their terms of office expired in December 2020.
The council had previously voted to extend the terms of Bucknum, Sachs and Raths, similar to the action taken to extend Kelley and Goodell’s terms.
Senator Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) sent a letter to Bonta in March calling for the removal of council members Bucknum, Sachs and Raths for extending their terms. The letter also pointed to Kelley and Goodell as another example of the illegal term extension and urged for more oversight on the council.
“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.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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