An OC City Council Faces Unprecedented Legal Issues. Will Anyone Care When Voters Mark Their Ballot?
Voters in Mission Viejo will get a chance to weigh in on whether to keep or oust three city councilmembers that a judge found have been in office illegally.
An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled earlier this year that Greg Raths, Wendy Bucknum and Ed Sachs, had overstayed their council terms by nearly two years. The city’s appeal is pending.
It's a dramatic backdrop for the upcoming election, when voters in this city of some 92,000 will choose representatives by district for the first time rather than at-large. Democrats are running in all five of the newly drawn districts — four of them challenging incumbents in this traditional Republican stronghold.
Will voters see the incumbents' legal troubles as a serious violation of the democratic process, and boot them out? Or will they forgive them for what the incumbents and the city attorney say is just a procedural misunderstanding?
Here’s the backstory and what’s at stake.
A Partisan Divide? It Depends On Who You Ask
City council is technically a nonpartisan position. But some of the councilmembers facing legal challenges, their supporters, and Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley have publicly hinted that they think the lawsuit, which was spearheaded by local Democrats, was a ploy to influence the elections.
Cathy Schlicht, a former Mission Viejo councilmember and a Republican, disagrees. "I think that the city council has no defense for what they've done and so what they are trying to do is create a civil war, Republicans against Democrats," she said.
Bucknum, one of the councilmembers at the center of the controversy, said residents are the ones framing the council's legal issues as a party battle. She says most of the people she's talked to are upset the lawsuit was filed in the first place.
"They don't look at it as an affront to me and my colleagues, they look at it as an affront to the city, and that this is outside people coming in and trying to change the trajectory of the city," said Bucknum, who holds the rotating position of mayor. (The lead plaintiff on the initial lawsuit is a Mission Viejo resident.)
Democrats Say It’s Time For A Change
One of the Democratic challengers hoping to win a seat on the council, to represent District 1, is Deborah Cunningham-Skurnik. She has lived in Mission Viejo for 35 years, raising her three kids in the city and coaching their soccer teams.
She remembers canvassing in one of the city's neighborhoods in 1988, with her then-toddler son, for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Back then, 57% of the city's voters were registered Republicans.
"Hardly anyone would open their door," she said. "No one threw anything at me, thank goodness, I think because I had a baby with me."
Now, Republicans make up just 38% of registered voters in Mission Viejo. Another 33% of voters are registered as Democrats and 22% are registered as No Party Preference.
Cunningham-Skurnik said it's time for a change in city leadership to better represent the city's demographics. The current councilmembers are all Republican.
"All of us care deeply about our city and we should. We just are going to bring probably some different priorities," she said.
Cynthia Vasquez, also a Democrat, is running against two of the Republican incumbents, Raths and Sachs, to represent District 3.
"I want to give the city a better voice, a broader voice," Vasquez said, adding that she's the only candidate with young children attending local public schools. "So there's a variety of things that I offer that a lot of the current city council members do not."
Judge Finds Three Councilmembers In Office Illegally
The council's current legal troubles date back to a 2018 legal challenge alleging that the city's at-large election system diluted the voting power of Latinos and other groups that have been historically underrepresented in city politics. Latinos make up 18.5% of Mission Viejo's population, according to census data. Asian Americans make up another 14%.
To remedy the power imbalance, Mission Viejo initially considered a change to by-district voting, in 2018, but ultimately scrapped the idea and decided to pursue a system called cumulative voting that's often used in corporate governance.
In anticipation of that switch, voters in 2018 were asked to choose three representatives on Mission Viejo's city council for a period of two years rather than the usual four years, with the idea that all city council seats would be up for election at the same time in 2020.
But in 2019, the California Secretary of State nixed the city's plan to adopt cumulative voting, saying the law didn't allow for it. The city continued to pursue the idea, with by-district voting as a backup, but city officials pushed the date back for implementing a new election system to the November 2022 election.
Meanwhile, the 2020 election rolled around — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the ballot did not include the three seats held by the council members who had been elected in 2018 to a two-year term. They kept their seats and, for a while, few seemed to question it.
I don't think a lot of people were paying attention at that point.
"I don't think a lot of people were paying attention at that point,” said Cathy Palmer, a Mission Viejo resident and the secretary of the Canyon Democrats club. The club's motto is "Turning South Orange County Blue."
When Palmer and others started to look into it, they realized the city also didn't plan to put the remaining two council seats, held by Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell, on the ballot for the November 2022 election, even though the council members occupying those seats had been elected in 2020 to two-year terms.
Palmer said she felt belittled during the repeated city council meetings when she asked questions at the public podium about the term lengths. "It was delay, distract, and basically intimidate people from the dias who got up to speak," she said.
Eventually, she and other critics worked with local attorneys and helped move forward two legal complaints against the city: one regarding the three seats that were on the ballot for two-year terms in 2018 and one regarding the two seats that were on the ballot for two-year terms in 2020.
A judge decided the first case against the city in late August and it's currently under appeal. The city settled in the second case earlier this year, agreeing to put Kelley and Goodell's seats on the November ballot.
For Mission Viejo Residents, A Violation Of Voter Trust?
The incumbents say they didn't purposefully usurp power but rather relied on legal advice from the city attorney and their own city code, which states that council terms are for four years.
I put my trust in our legal system and our election system and our attorney … and I thought [the city attorney] did everything right.
"I mean, this hurts, you know, all the work I've done," said Councilmember Greg Raths, referring to his time in office since the 2020 election. "I put my trust in our legal system and our election system and our attorney … and I thought [the city attorney] did everything right."
Raths said he wants another term in office so that he can see through a plan to revitalize the city's central shopping area. The project has garnered criticism from some of Raths opponents, in part because it's thus-far been paid for with bonds that didn't require a public vote.
Beyond the watchdogs and activists, it's hard to tell whether the average, busy resident in Mission Viejo even knows about the city's legal battles. Like most small cities in Orange County, Mission Viejo doesn't get a lot of news coverage. There was one city council candidates' forum earlier this month, but no audience questions were allowed and candidates were told they could only talk about themselves, not their opponents. The incumbents' legal troubles didn't come up at all.
Residents do post about the elections and the lawsuit in local Facebook groups, but many comments are heated and partisan.
Mission Viejo resident Stephanie Bouas said she’s a regular voter, but she hadn't heard about the lawsuits over council terms.
She said she usually looks for candidates with some kind of business background when deciding how to vote in city council races. "I mean, to be honest, I don't really deep dive into like, really who these people are," she said.
Anthony Szczurek, associate professor of politics at Saddleback College, said the legal case raises serious concerns about voting rights. "When voters make a decision, do they have trust that that decision is going to be upheld?" he said.
Szczurek doesn't think the incumbents' legal troubles are a result of partisan positioning if their supporters are framing it that way.
"What we are seeing at the local level, is this much more in your face partisanship, party identification. And unfortunately, sometimes, though, that's used to obscure what's actually going on here," he said, "what might actually be real issues or problems or corruption."
The outcome of the election, Szczurek said, could say a lot about the health of local democracy.