Mission Viejo could pay over $700,000 in legal fees after two lawsuits from a resident challenged that council members had illegally extended their terms.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm ordered the city to pay a total of $715,137 in the two cases.
The payments were handed down in four separate orders over the past month, the most recent on Oct. 6.
But now the city is paying the hefty price for the lawsuits city officials challenged and claimed had “no merit.” The cases were brought against the city by Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger.
“These attorneys’ fee awards vindicate our efforts to hold the City and the City Council accountable,” Schlesinger said in a press release.
“What is sad is that all the City and the City Council had to do was simply follow the law. In simple terms, Councilmembers Goodell, Kelley, Sachs, Bucknum, and Raths tried to deprive myself and my fellow citizens of the right to vote. They got caught and are paying the consequences for their despicable and unprecedented actions.”
Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley said the city is still working to appeal some of the fees.
“The total amount sought in court filings by Plaintiff’s three law firms was some $1.2 million,” Curley wrote in an email to Voice of OC.
Curley continued, “Of that claimed amount, the trial court awarded some $680,000, or roughly 50% of what was originally sought by these three firms. The City also notes that of that sum it is currently appealing the award of fees in one case and has yet to determine whether it will appeal the fees awarded in the other case.”
Aaron Hand, Schlesinger’s attorney, said that there’s no other branch of government that is watching to make sure that a city calls an election when it is supposed to.
“The only people who are there to hold a city council to account are the citizens of the cities,” Hand said in a phone interview. “In this case, when you have individuals who raised their concerns, they were attacked. They were belittled.”
The challenge first began when Mission Viejo officials attempted to move from at-large to by-district voting for council elections.
That change was the result of a voting rights lawsuit that’s been hitting cities across the county and state for years.
But as Mission Viejo began its switch to districts, three council members quietly extended their terms past the two-year time limit.
Council members Wendy Bucknum, Ed Sachs and Greg Raths were elected to their council seats in 2018 — but they were only supposed to serve two-year terms.
Schlesinger filed his first lawsuit against the three officeholders, claiming they illegally extended their terms without a public vote.
Later, Councilmembers Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell also tried extending past the two-year term — despite a signed legal agreement that all five council members would be up for reelection in 2022. They were elected to two-year terms in 2020 and were looking to extend their terms to 2024.
Schwarm ruled that all five council members were required to stand for election in 2022. He also had also ruled to pull Bucknum, Sachs and Raths off the council, which would have left them without a quorum to meet and vote.
But the California Appellate Court delayed that removal a day before they would have been forced to resign. The council ultimately made it to election day without a final decision from the appellate court.
In 2022, Bucknum was reelected but Sachs and Raths were not.
“The city council and the city attorney have been and were hostile toward members of the public who raise concerns about their attempt to illegally extend their terms of office,” Hand said.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13
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