Today, an Orange County judge stood by an earlier tentative ruling to remove a majority of the Mission Viejo City Council but it’s still an open question on who’s going to fill those seats ahead of the November election.
Judge Walter Schwarm’s tentative ruling came after several lawsuits against the city by Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger, alleging councilmembers illegally extended their terms of office after they told voters they would only sit for a two year term.
Voice of OC first reported the judge’s tentative decision yesterday.
Lawyers for the city and Schlesinger appeared at a hearing this morning where Schwarm stood by his tentative ruling, despite pushback from Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley.
Curley said that a council majority is needed to get some important work done before the election in November, and that there’s no real answers on how to fill those seats with only two councilmembers.
“Some work might be jeopardized by not taking action,” Curley said.
A council needs at least a majority in order to approve agenda items and make official decisions. With only two people on the council, the members would need to appoint at least one person in order to form a council majority after Raths, Bucknam and Sachs step down.
Schwarm said it wasn’t his responsibility to figure out that problem, but that he would reconvene with the lawyers tomorrow morning to discuss a potential solution and make the final decision.
“The city’s position seems to be, ‘We can’t do anything with only two councilmembers,’ and that just doesn’t seem legally correct,” Schwarm said. “I don’t know what the answer is… I’m going to continue this motion.”
During the hearing, Schwarm also said he wasn’t making any statements on the motivation behind the term extensions.
“I made no findings regarding good or bad faith of any participant,” Schwarm said. “I don’t want that to be any suggestion from this court.”
Aaron Hand, Schlesinger’s attorney, argued during the hearing that he wanted the council members to be immediately removed from their positions because he said it could pose a conflict of interest if they remain after the legal proceedings.
Currently, Mayor Wendy Bucknam and Councilmembers Ed Sachs and Greg Raths are set to be removed from their positions by September 30.
Curley also recapped that the council had extended their terms while they were trying to change their election method.
For years, city leaders tried to implement a system called cumulative voting to resolve the issue of racially polarized voting in the city, which would have required all five councilmembers go up for election at the same time.
To line up the seats in the same election, it was widely advertised in the 2018 and 2020 elections that the council elections would be for two year terms.
But the California Secretary of State’s office told city leaders repeatedly that cumulative voting wasn’t an approved option for the city, and when they were denied the chance to switch, councilmembers voted to hang onto their standard four year terms despite running for a two year term.
As a result, Bucknam Sachs and Raths were elected in 2018 on two year terms and continued to serve through the present.
Councilmembers Brian Goodell and Trish Kelley attempted to do the same thing after the 2020 election, extending their terms until 2024, but Schwarm ruled in an earlier court case that they would have to go on the ballot at the end of their two year terms.
Goodell and Kelley will remain on the dais through the 2022 election, at which point they will either be reelected or voted out of office.
However, all five council members have a chance at making it back to the city council in November, with all of their names listed on the ballot under the city’s new district election system.
Both Raths and Sachs are running in the same district, meaning only one of them could return to the council.
Tomorrow’s court session is scheduled for tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m.
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.