Though a judge has ordered Mike Alvarez to vacate his seat on the Orange City Council, it’s unclear how the situation will play out.
Undeterred by the city’s two-term limit, Alvarez ran again and was elected to a third term last November, after the city changed from at-large to district elections in 2019. But a consolidated lawsuit filed by resident Michael MacIsaac and John Russo, one of Alvarez’s opponents in 2020, has resulted in an annulment of the councilmember’s victory, leaving the Southern California city’s Third District council seat vacant.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott officially rendered his judgment in favor of the plaintiffs on Feb. 24. Alvarez had 10 business days from that date to file an appeal—but told The Epoch Times he hadn’t made a decision yet about how to handle the situation.
“I’m still working with my attorney on what my next steps are,” he said.
Councilmember Arianna Barrios said the Orange City Council hasn’t met thus far to discuss the matter.
“This is such an unusual situation. I think we are all waiting to see what happens next,” Barrios told The Epoch Times.
She explained two possible scenarios that could unfold if the court’s decision is upheld: The council could either appoint someone to the vacant seat or hold a special election.
Russo told The Epoch Times that if a special election is held, he will run again.
“There are a lot of open ends to this situation that I am not super thrilled about. The judge didn’t really give direction on how to fill the seat. He just did one half: He made the seat open,” Russo said.
“But I’m very glad that the judge did rule in the favor of maintaining the law. … This not only sends a message but also sets a precedent to our city council, saying, ‘We the people who elected you are going to hold you accountable to do what is right and to follow the city code that we voted on.’”
Barrios said the districting lawsuit settlement of 2019 clearly stated the council would handle future vacancies by holding a special election.
“For me personally, I do not like the idea of spending desperately needed general fund dollars, but in the interest of fairness, the District should be given the opportunity to choose their own representative,” Barrios said in a text message. “The current Council Majority was adamant in 2019 that Special Election is the only democratic solution.”
At a meeting held in January 2019, Mayor Mark Murphy, Councilmember Kim Nichols, and Councilmember Chip Monaco—all of whom remain on the current City Council—were adamant about holding a special election in the event of a vacancy.
“While it’s an honor to serve as an appointed person, it doesn’t feel genuine and true until you’re elected—and I can speak to that from firsthand knowledge,” Murphy said at the time.
Nichols said: “It’s the community’s right to make this decision. I believe that we need to ask the voters one more time: Who should we put in this seat to represent you?”
Monaco acknowledged the council’s right to make an appointment, but said investing city funds to host a special election is appropriate “in the spirit and support of democracy.”
Barrios, who was elected to represent Orange’s District 1 last November, said she’s curious to see whether their perspectives will be maintained.
“The Council Majority were adamant that you can’t put a price on democracy and we had to go to a Special Election. If the majority changes to being adamant about an appointment, our discussion will be very interesting indeed,” she said.
MacIsaac’s attorney, Gary S. Winuk, told The Epoch Times that they’re pleased with the outcome. He said his client’s motives for filing the lawsuit—“good government and civic responsibility”—have been validated.
Winuk said if Alvarez decides to appeal, the case “would be given preference by the appellate court to hear it sooner than other cases,” but “whether Alvarez would be able to stay in office during the appeal will have to be decided by the Court.”
In November, Alvarez received over 50 percent of the vote in Orange’s Third District, compared to nearly 27 percent for Russo. A third opponent, Danett Abbott-Wicker, received about 22 percent.