Three of the five Mission Viejo City Councilmembers were pulled off the dais by an Orange County Superior Court judge on Monday, leaving the city without a city council majority until the November election.
Council members Ed Sachs, Greg Raths and Mayor Wendy Bucknam will all be removed from office at the end of September.
“Removal of the majority of the City Council members is a drastic measure which the court does not take lightly,” said Judge Walter Schwarm in his ruling. “The Court orders Defendants Ed Sachs, Wendy Bucknum, and Greg Raths excluded and removed from their respective elected offices as City Council members.”
To read the full ruling, click here.
The Mission Viejo resident whose lawsuit triggered the action, Michael Schlesinger, late Monday applauded Schwarm’s ruling, which also has a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
“It has been a long fight for me and my fellow Mission Viejo citizens to obtain voting rights in this City,” Schlesinger stated.
Schlesinger also called on the candidates to drop out of the election immediately and make way for a new majority.
“Because these individuals violated the voters’ trust, they should have the decency to remove themselves from the 2022 ballot for City Council and never run for City Council again. Brian Goodell and Trish Kelley should also resign and withdraw from the election because they too have violated the voters’ trust. All five city councilmembers voted unanimously to extend their terms. It took two lawsuits to force them all to stand for election, all on the backs of the taxpayers.”
In an earlier interview on Monday, Raths said he found out about the ruling when Voice of OC asked for comment. Raths said while he was sure the city would appeal the decision he would accept it since he could run again in November.
“That’s disappointing, but if that’s what the judge says I’ll respect it,” Raths said.
Responding to Schlesinger’s call for him to get off November’s ballot, Raths said he was still planning on running.
“Obviously I’m going to run. Just because he says I should step down, I’m not,” Raths said. “I feel I’ve been a very effective councilman for the past eight years.”
Voice of OC reached out for comment to Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley and the rest of the city council, who have yet to respond.
The decision from Schwarm comes after a years-long legal battle where residents alleged the council illegally extended their terms of office multiple times in 2018 and 2020 while they looked at implementing cumulative voting.
In June 2020, council members voted unanimously to extend Bucknum, Sachs and Raths terms. They were originally elected to two-year terms in 2018.
The city was attempting to change its election system from at-large voting to cumulative voting, which gives the residents as many votes as there are seats up for election, but requires the entire council to go up for election at once.
After state officials refused requests for the city to transition to cumulative voting, the city instead created election districts to comply with the California Voting Rights Act.
Those districts are set to be implemented for the first time in the 2022 election, and all five councilmembers will be on the ballot running for those seats after Schwarm ordered previously that the entire council would be on the ballot.
Meanwhile, Bucknam, Sachs and Raths have been serving since 2018 on a two-year term.
That prompted Schlesinger to file a complaint to the California Attorney General Rob Bonta, alleging council members illegally extended their term limits.
Mission Viejo city leaders argued that they weren’t extending their terms of office, but that because they never implemented cumulative voting the two year term was void and they should get their normal four year term without having to face a second election.
“The city attorney said we were back to the regular four year terms, so I just continued to serve. I don’t think there was anything wrong,” Raths said. “I’m not a lawyer or a city clerk, I just continued to serve until this (lawsuit) surfaced.”
All three of the council members who were taken off the dais are on the ballot for the November election, meaning they could be reelected and back on the dais before the end of the year.
Councilmembers Patricia “Trish” Kelley and Brian Goodell, who will remain in office, also did the same thing and attempted to extend their terms of office until 2024, but Schwarm ordered them to go back to the ballot for the 2022 election in an earlier ruling.
There will be a hearing tomorrow morning officially adopting the ruling at 9 a.m.
This story will be updated.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and a corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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