MISSION VIEJO, Calif.—California Attorney General Rob Bonta May 19 gave a Mission Viejo resident the green light to sue to unseat Mayor Wendy Bucknam and councilmen Ed Sachs and Greg Raths from office on the grounds the elected officials’ terms have expired.
Last month, Mission Viejo resident and retired veteran Michael Schlesinger filed a lawsuit arguing all five city council seats should be up for a vote in November.
At issue is a complicated failed attempt by the city to comply with a 2018 lawsuit settlement to make its elections decided by cumulative voting, meaning city voters would cast up to five ballots for the city’s five council seats.
The city ultimately decided to choose a district-based voting system, which divides Mission Viejo into geographic districts represented by one council member who lives in their respective section. Residents would only vote for the representative of their district.
But that decision, after exploring other voting systems, extended the terms of the councilors elected in 2018—Bucknum, Raths, and Sachs—from two to four years.
Following this, the city scheduled the election for councilors Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell, who were elected in 2020, for the 2024 ballot.
Bonta’s opinion (pdf) found that Schlesinger’s application to file a Quo Warranto—challenging whether individuals rightfully occupy public office—is a decision that a court should make.
“While we cannot say with certainty whether a court will resolve this matter before November 2022, a potentially short period of time remaining in an officeholder’s term of office is not, by itself, an adequate reason to deny a quo warranto application that presents substantial questions of law or fact meriting judicial resolution,” Bonta wrote.
Bonta’s response is not a surprise, said Mission Viejo City Attorney William Curly.
“[Bonta] is not functioning as a decision-maker or a judge of the merits,” Curly told The Epoch Times. “But instead ensures the issues have substance.”
Curly said the city remains “confident” of its position and looks forward to achieving a positive resolution to the matter.
City officials filed a motion May 12 to throw Schlesingers’s case out using an anti-SLAPP motion, which is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a special lawsuit filed to silence criticism.
Opposers say the action is typically used to silence and harass critics who speak out against governing bodies on issues of public interest that could take years to defend while depleting the accuser of their financial resources.
Yet, the city’s motion states that Schlesinger’s lawsuit “has been brought primarily to chill and punish the City Council for engaging in these constitutionally protected activities.”
The motion is set to be heard in the Orange County Superior Court on Sept. 13, where Schlesinger “will be required to show that his claims are legally sound and supported by evidence,” the motion reads.