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5-Minute Term Is Mission Viejo's Bizarre Remedy To Gutted City Council

Photo is of an empty city council chambers with text at the top reading "City Council Update." On the left-hand side, there's a screen showing the image of a seal reading "Mission Viejo, California." Further toward the dais, there's a stand with the U.S. and California flag and another flag.
State law requires three councilmembers to form a quorum and conduct city business, which includes accepting the results of local elections.
(via City of Mission Viejo's official Instagram)
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In an unusual move, Mission Viejo’s City Council swore in a new city councilmember Tuesday for just five minutes before she left office in order to approve the city’s election results.

It was the city's answer to a political riddle: Mission Viejo didn't have a council large for a quorum and therefore couldn't legally approve its newly elected councilmembers. So the city attorney recommended appointing a third councilmember for just long enough to accept the election results, and then to send her back to retirement.

The Backstory

Mission Viejo was left with just two city councilmembers after a court ordered the other three members, Ed Sachs, Greg Raths and Wendy Bucknum, to step down in mid-November. Their removal followed an Orange County Superior Court ruling in late August that found the city council had illegally extended the terms of Sachs, Raths and Bucknum while the city tried to work out a deal to implement a new election system.

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State law requires three councilmembers to form a quorum to conduct city business, which includes accepting the results of local elections. So the city appointed a third councilmember, former

Mayor/Councilmember Sherri Butterfield, on Tuesday for just long enough to pass a resolution acknowledging the five councilmembers who won seats in November.

Who Cares About The City's Legal Gymnastics?

Mission Viejo residents have been split on whether the former council's legal troubles are a major violation of voter trust or just a procedural misunderstanding. Those who believe the latter blame local Democratic party activists for overblowing the term issue in hopes of gaining a foothold in the traditionally Republican, though technically nonpartisan, council.

At the meeting held to certify the election results, resident Walt Lawson spoke during public comment and noted that city staff didn't mention why it was necessary to temporarily appoint a third councilmember.

Lawson said the lack of transparency was part of a pattern "of continuing to avoid any responsibility for the illegal term extensions and refusing to offer any apology to the citizens of Mission Viejo for denying them their right to vote."

On the other side, former Mission Viejo Mayor/Councilmember Robert Breton, who also spoke at the meeting, noted that city voters had "expressed their satisfaction with the incumbents," re-electing three of them in November.

A woman with silver-grey hair speaks to a taller woman with long brown hair wearing a black suit. Behind them, chairs are set up in rows in front of a stage and people are milling around.
Cynthia Vasquez (right) won her city council race against two incumbents, Greg Raths and Ed Sachs, to represent District 3 in Mission Viejo.
(Jill Replogle
/
LAist)

An Update On The Legal Challenge

After the special meeting, the new city council — including Bucknum, one of the former members ordered by the court to vacate her seat — was promptly sworn in. Two other incumbents, Brian Goodell and Trish Kelley, also won reelection.

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This was the city's first election where candidates ran by district rather than at-large. Bob Ruesch, a former planning commissioner, won in a district that had no incumbents running. Cynthia Vasquez won her race against ousted former councilmembers Raths and Sachs, who largely split the vote in that district.

Vasquez, the sole Democrat on the council, thanked her campaign volunteers and voters during her first meeting. She also asked City Attorney Bill Curley for an update on the status of the council lawsuit that led to the councilmembers’ oustings and the city's expected payment to the winning plaintiff's attorneys.

Curley said the city is still working to appeal the court's decision in the case, and he called the plaintiff's request for attorneys fees "rather fanciful."

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Updated December 14, 2022 at 12:09 PM PST
This story has been updated with details from the meeting held on Tuesday.