Three Mission Viejo City Council members showed up for their last meeting Tuesday night and handed the city manager a blank check in contracting powers to run the city.
An Orange County Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of their removal earlier this month in a lawsuit claiming they illegally extended their terms – meaning there will no longer be enough council members to establish a quorum.
After this story was published, a California Appellate Court delayed the removal order. Read about it here.
The only power withheld from the city manager is the ability to craft new laws or amend existing ones, but he can write and approve contracts, amend the budget at will, put contracts out to bid and more.
OC Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm decided that Ed Sachs, Greg Raths and Wendy Bucknum had illegally extended their terms two years ago and had overstayed their welcome on the council.
An appeal from the city is still pending that may allow the members to return.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, the council pointed to City Manager Dennis Wilberg as the go-to person for operational issues in the meantime before the upcoming election.
The item was voted on without any council discussion at the same time as other items considered routine on the consent calendar – meaning the critical shift was voted on in the same motion to approve something as routine as meeting minutes.
The staff report also made no mention of the legal proceedings or any reasoning why Wilberg needed increased powers.
Wilberg, an unelected official, was given “all non-legislative powers necessary to maintain, advance and satisfy the obligations, duties, promises, contracts, laws, propositions or similar governmental actions deemed necessary or desirable by the City Manager,” according to the staff report.
The resolution contained no spending limits on Wilberg.
During Tuesday’s public comment, some residents loudly criticized the way city officials handled the shift.
“The purpose of the consent calendar is to pass routine items with one roll call vote,” said Cathy Schlicht, a former mayor and vocal critic of the current council. “There is nothing routine in a resolution without explanation that transfers power to the city manager that gives very few details without any financial caps.”
Another resident said the increased authority given to the city manager is too great.
“The item gives too much power to the city manager, as it fails to give reasonable limitations to the power in the absence of a functioning body,” the resident said at the meeting. “This is irresponsible, and I’m ashamed of our council.”
All three of the removed council members are running in the November election, which will also be the city’s first election with district voting.
Originally, city council members tried to implement a system called cumulative voting and ran for two year terms on the promise the entire council would be up for election in 2020 on the new system.
But multiple California secretaries of state told the city they would not be allowed to implement cumulative voting without the permission of the state legislature, which they never got.
Instead of going back to the ballot, Bucknum, Sachs and Raths voted to extend their own terms to the standard four-year term, arguing that because no change had been made, the two year term was invalid.
Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger sued them, arguing that because they’d told voters they were going to hold a two-year seat, extending to a four-year term was illegal.
Earlier this month, Judge Schwarm sided with Schlesinger, saying the three council members had to be off the dais by the end of the month unless they got an appeals court decision delaying that order.
While the city filed an appeal on Monday, there’s been no word yet from the appellate courts.
“Until the appeal is decided, argued, whatever happens, we will be honoring Judge Schwarm’s order,” City Attorney Bill Curley said during the meeting. “Depending on what the court of appeal does, the council as constituted can come right back so to speak, depending on if the court of appeal may issue a stay and what it may be.”
Curley said it was important to keep all the council members available if they are needed to return before the election.
Raths gave a brief farewell in case the meeting was his last.
“I just want everyone to know and understand regardless of what happens going forward – by the way I expect to be back here – but regardless of everything that happens as we go forward, it has been my absolute pleasure and honor to get to do this and to serve everyone in this community,” Raths said at the meeting.
Bucknum emphasized at the meeting that the removal from office not only affects the council, but the members’ ability to represent Mission Viejo on regional bodies.
“It’s a very short-sighted situation we’re in that I’m sure will get rectified whether I am serving this community sitting up here or serving this community right there, or out at the parks, out in the schools, out at the events, at the library. It’s not going to stop,” Bucknum said.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13
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.
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