During a recent city council meeting, the city of Costa Mesa passed a motion 4–3 to allow non-U.S. citizens to serve on the city’s Planning Commission. The measure will also no longer require commissioners to reside in the districts they represent.
Costa Mesa Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds said she supported the motion because she wants the city to follow its mission statement to be as inclusive to residents as possible.
“When I’m looking at our policies and ordinances as they come before us, I’m always asking the question of, ‘Why does this policy exist?’” Reynolds said during the Aug. 3 council meeting, referring to the requirement that a commissioner must be a registered voter.
“Oftentimes, there’s a really good reason for a rule to exist. In this case, I didn’t see a really good reason for this rule to exist,” she said.
The city’s planning commission is tasked with advising the city council on issues related to the long-term development of Costa Mesa, and it has authority to act on various permits, projects, and other augmentations.
Prior to Aug. 3, commissioners were appointed by district in accordance with the district the appointing councilmember represented, and they had to reside within the district they were appointed for.
When the resolution was initially introduced during a council meeting on July 20, it only included the district-related issue. Councilors at the time opted to remove the requirement to “be a qualified elector,” meaning the individual being appointed doesn’t need to be registered to vote.
“When I think about what we’re looking for [in a commissioner], I’m looking for … someone knowledgeable, open-minded, thoughtful, fair, experienced, invested in community, someone who understands impacts to our community and residents of Costa Mesa,” Reynolds said.
“To me, I don’t see that there’s an exclusive nexus between those traits and someone who’s a registered voter in the city. So, to me, this is an unnecessary rule.”
But Costa Mesa residents who provided public comment were against the motion.
Some public commenters said districts need to be represented fairly and that since councilmembers are elected by registered voters, they should not appoint non-registered voters to the seats.
“I was born in Iran, a country where people’s votes don’t count because there’s no democracy. Seven years after moving to the states with a green card at the age of 21, I had the honor of being sworn in as a citizen and finally able to vote,” Hengameh Abraham, resident of Costa Mesa told the councilmembers.
“But how dare you insult many people like me, who take such pride in being a registered voter and take this civic duty very seriously by removing this requirement for planning commissioners?
“This is unacceptable, it is unnecessary, and a slap in the face to all the registered voters who got all of you elected to make decisions on their behalf.”
Councilman Jeff Harlan, who supported the motion, said he thought there was a misconception that commissioners are responsible for the district as opposed to the entire city.
“[Commissioners] were not elected. They didn’t sign up and pound the pavement to try and solicit votes. They’re there simply to evaluate land-use applications, consider policy, and do it for the good of the entire city,” he said.
Mayor John Stephens said he gave the issue a lot of thought and later changed his mind on the qualified elector requirement after voting for the resolution during the July hearing. He offered a substitute motion to only remove the district requirement and keep the registered voter requirement, but it failed 6-1.
In defense, Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Marr said it’s “absurd” to not allow non-U.S. citizens to serve their own communities when numerous veterans with green cards have died for this country.
“The idea that you could be a green card holder, who can’t vote, and somehow be lesser than, somehow not be able to serve your community, somehow not represent enough of America is frankly offensive to me,” she said.
“I am so frustrated with the idea that those people are still not good enough to represent at some planning commission.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Don Harper said he agreed with the public commenters and could not support the motion.
“It is difficult for me to be elected by citizens by voters, and come here and say, ‘I’m going to install commissioners that may vote on something in your district, that are not citizens, and they’re not voters,’” he said.
“I listened to eight people say they didn’t want this change, and I didn’t hear anybody publicly speak and say, ‘Get rid of the voter requirement and change how we appoint planning commissioners,’” he said.
It’s unclear if the motion is effective immediately.