Mission Viejo residents are set to see their first new councilmembers since 2016 after voters ousted two councilmen that a judge ruled illegally extended their terms in one of Orange County’s most chaotic local elections.
This was the city’s first year using district elections, and every single seat on the council was up for grabs at the same time.
Initially, only three seats were set to be on the 2022 ballot, with the rest coming in 2024, until OC Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm stepped in.
While the city was in the process of moving to districts for years, council candidates ran and won two year terms, which they then chose to extend to four year terms, arguing that because they hadn’t transitioned voting systems they were legally obligated to remain in office.
But Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger sued them for that, arguing they couldn’t tell voters they were running for two year terms and then keep them for four years, an argument Schwarm agreed with.
Schwarm ordered Mayor Wendy Bucknum and Councilmen Greg Raths and Ed Sachs – the three who extended their terms – to step off the dais before the election, setting up the city for a weeks-long limbo where they wouldn’t have a functional city council.
[Read: Mission Viejo Appoints City Manager to Run the Town After Judge Boots Council Majority]
But days before the council was set to be removed, the state appellate court blocked their removal, saying they needed time to review the case before making any decisions.
The council ultimately made it to election day without a final decision from the appellate court on whether or not their term extension was constitutional.
[Read: California Appeals Court Blocks Removal of Mission Viejo City Council Majority]
But shortly after the election, the appeals court lifted their stay on the order removing the three council members from office, without making a final ruling on the legality of their term extension.
So far, it looks like voters largely weren’t dissuaded by the ruling against the council.
In the city’s 5th district, Bucknum has over 60% of the 6,200 votes cast, meaning her challenger Jon Miller would have to pick up thousands of votes in the next couple of days to offset the difference.
Councilmembers Brian Goodell and Trish Kelley were also winning by margins of nearly 20% or more in the city’s 2nd and 4th districts, respectively.
While Goodell and Kelley were not going to be removed from office under Schwarm’s ruling, the council also tried extending their term, but were told they couldn’t by Schwarm.
The only race where incumbent council members are losing is in the city’s third district, where business owner Cynthia Vasquez is 194 votes ahead of Raths, making a nearly 4% lead, with fellow Councilman Sachs in a distant third place.
Vasquez will be the first council member endorsed by the county Democratic Party to make it to the dais in at least eight years.
In the first district, where residents are guaranteed their first new councilman since 2016, Planning Commission Chair Bob Ruesch is in the lead, with over half of the counted votes, while candidates Deborah Cunningham-Skurnik and Linda Shepard each hovered at around a quarter of the votes.
After the appeals court decision, the city council can’t meet again until the new council takes their seats because they lack the majority required to do so.
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.
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