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Residents Divided, Council Defiant After Ruling Removes 3 Mission Viejo City Council Members

 A screenshot from the video feed of the Mission Viejo City Council's meeting on Sept. 13, 2022 shows five council members sitting behind the dias.
A screenshot from the video feed of the Mission Viejo City Council's meeting on Sept. 13, 2022.
(Courtesy of Mission Viejo City Council via city website)
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Mission Viejo city officials were unapologetic at their first public meeting held after an Orange County judge ruled that three of the council members had overstayed their terms by nearly two years.

That ruling takes effect at the end of the month to give the city time to appeal.

Nevertheless, the residents behind the lawsuit had asked the three council members, Ed Sachs, Wendy Bucknum and Greg Raths, to recuse themselves from city decisions after Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm's ruling. They did not.

Defiant Response

Raths was defiant from the dais, at one point yelling at his critics to stop attacking his integrity. "I'm not doing anything below the belt here," he said.

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"I'm here to serve my community. I love my community. And I want to continue to serve my community, but two months before an election you guys bring this all up to try to get your candidates in there to win these districts."

In fact, Michael Schlesinger, the resident who initially filed the lawsuit, had told council members at a January meeting that he intended to file a legal complaint over the post-election extension of council members' terms.

What The Recent Ruling Found

The recent ruling from Schwarm found that the three council members should've been up for election in 2020 instead of interpreting, as city officials did from a separate legal agreement over voting rights, that their time in office should be extended until 2022. (Sound complicated? Read more on the legal fight here.)

During the meeting, City Attorney Bill Curley said the judge's recent decision was a "procedural matter" not a moral issue, and he dismissed the lawsuit as political posturing.

"I guess I’d say it is an attempt to influence future elections or something," he said.

Accusations Of Attempted Liberal Takeover

City officials and some of their supporters also accused critics of trying to orchestrate a liberal takeover of the historically conservative city of some 95,000. Cathy Palmer, one of the residents who supported the lawsuit, dismissed that notion.

"I do happen to be liberal and I'm proud of it, but if you were a very liberal council and you were sitting up there after your terms had expired, I would be just as angry," she said, during the public comment portion of the meeting. "You have taken away the right of the people to elect their own representatives."

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Opinions among community members who attended the meeting varied. After the meeting, one resident said that they didn't know enough about the council controversy to have an opinion. Another, who was at the meeting to oppose a proposed fast food drive-through in his neighborhood, said he supported the council and wasn't concerned about their legal problems.

"It's just not a thing I wake up thinking about, it's just not," said Rick Sandzimier. "They're doing a hell of a job representing our city."

What's Next

Unless an appeals court reverses Schwarm's decision, the city could be left with just two council members before new ones are elected in November. That could make it difficult to conduct city business since state law requires three votes to pass items on the agenda.

Schlesinger, the resident who filed the suit, is unconcerned about that possibility.

"They created this mess, let them solve it," he said. "I think they were smart enough to know what they were doing was wrong.”

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