After an Orange County Superior Court judge kicked a majority of the Mission Viejo City Council off the dais last month, saying they’d improperly extended their terms, there’s been little information about what comes next.
Mission Viejo hasn’t seen a new city council member in six years.
That’s set to change by Sept. 30.
Judge Walter Schwarm has given Mission Viejo leaders a month to figure out a plan, setting a deadline of September 30 for council member resignations or an appellate court ruling saying the council members can remain in office.
With less than two weeks to go before Schwarm’s deadline, there doesn’t appear to be any appeal filed or a plan in place for how the city will function without a city council.
In response to legal threats to adopt district voting in town, Mayor Wendy Bucknum and Councilmen Ed Sachs and Greg Raths were elected to two year terms in 2018, with plans to have the entire city council on the 2020 ballot with the implementation of a process called cumulative voting.
However, that never happened after multiple California Secretaries of State told the city that cumulative voting isn’t an approved voting method by the state.
But instead of going back to the ballot, the city council voted to instead serve a standard four year term, letting incumbents hang onto their seats until 2022.
The city council was then sued by Michael Schlesinger, a Mission Viejo resident who said they couldn’t unilaterally extend their terms after telling people they’d run for a two year term.
Last month, Judge Schwarm agreed with Schlesinger’s suit, announcing the three council members who’d extended their terms had to step down and could only return if reelected in November.
Since then, there’s been no word from the city on who’s in charge going forward.
Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley, the city’s biggest proponent of cumulative voting and the lawyer who defended the city council members, said he’s still waiting on paperwork from Schlesinger’s attorney to file an appeal at the city council meeting on September 13.
“We need that to proceed,” Curley said at the meeting, responding to public comments from Schlesinger encouraging the city to move faster. “We haven’t acted because you haven’t acted.”
Aaron Hand, Schlesinger’s attorney, said Curley has everything he needs to file a writ or relief in a phone call with Voice of OC.
A writ is an expedited appeal that would put the issue in front of an appellate court on a fast track to work out the issue before the council members are set to step down.
A formal appeal could take years according to Hand, and isn’t what the judge asked for.
“The judge in the case provided a limited stay in order for the defendant to seek immediate relief from the appeal court through the writ process, which is an emergency process,” Hand said. “To the extent the city asserts their ability to seek relief from the appeals court has been delayed, that’s false.”
But Curley has said he’s not interested in filing a writ, and he wants to go for a complete appeal.
“We chose to do the complete filing, not a piecemealed one (Hand) offers,” Curley said in a text to Voice of OC. “The delay seems to be a calculated effort to protect their position rather than have it tested- but there could be other reasons of course.”
When asked what plans were for if the ruling was upheld, Curley declined to comment, saying he had no information on that issue and referring reporters to the city manager.
The city manager’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Voice of OC Monday morning.
Councilmembers Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell will continue to hold onto their seats until the November election, but it remains unclear what kind of voting power they’ll have since they represent less than half of the city council.
The two sides are set to update Schwarm at a court hearing on September 26, just 4 days before Schwarm’s ruling will take effect.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.