Judge Orders Mission Viejo to Pay $700,000 in Legal Fees for Term Limit Lawsuits

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Judge Orders Mission Viejo to Pay $700,000 in Legal Fees for Term Limit Lawsuits

The Mission Viejo Civic Center on June 30, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Micaela Ricaforte

Micaela Ricaforte

10/21/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

Mission Viejo, California, could pay up to $700,000 in legal fees to a resident who sued the city, alleging all of its councilmembers illegally extended their terms in office.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm ordered the city to pay more than $715,000 to Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger this month. The required payments were handed down in four separate orders, with the most recent being issued Oct. 6.
Last year, Mr. Schlesinger brought two lawsuits against the city challenging the terms of councilors who were elected in 2018 and 2020 when the city was attempting to switch from at-large to district voting.
In one suit, Judge Schwarm ruled in August 2022 to remove then-councilors Ed Sachs, Greg Raths, and Wendy Bucknam from office—and in a second suit, argued councilors Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell should also appear on the 2022 ballot, in response to the legal challenges.
Mr. Raths and Mr. Sachs lost to newcomers in the November 2022 election. Ms. Bucknam, Ms. Kelley, and Mr. Goodell were reelected.
The Mission Viejo Civic Center on June 30, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The Mission Viejo Civic Center on June 30, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley told The Epoch Times via email that the city appealed the judge’s approval of the first lawsuit to remove councilors Mr. Sachs, Mr. Raths, and Ms. Bucknum from office.
An appeals court is expected to issue its ruling in December.
Mr. Curley also indicated that the second lawsuit may be appealed at a later date.
Mr. Schlesinger said in a statement Oct. 6 that he feels Judge Schwarm’s order in the first suit “vindicate[s]” his efforts to hold the city and the city council accountable.
“What is sad is that all the city and the city council had to do was simply follow the law,” he said. “In simple terms, Councilmembers Goodell, Kelley, Sachs, Bucknum, and Raths tried to deprive myself and my fellow citizens of the right to vote. They got caught and are paying the consequences for their despicable and unprecedented actions.”
The issue stems from a legal settlement that forced the city to switch from five “at-large” seats in which candidates run citywide, to a system made up of five separate districts.
A 2018 lawsuit by the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project contended the at-large system disenfranchised Latino voters and violated the California Voting Rights Act.
In switching to district elections, the council extended all councilors’ terms from two to four years.
Mr. Sachs, Mr. Raths, and Ms. Bucknam—elected in 2018—were to appear on the ballot in 2022 instead of 2020, and Ms. Kelley and Mr. Goodell—elected in 2020—would have been up for reelection in 2024.
In April 2022, Mr. Schlesinger filed a lawsuit arguing that Ms. Kelley and Mr. Goodell should also appear on the 2022 ballot. In July, Judge Schwarm ruled in favor of Mr. Schlesinger, forcing all five city councilors to appear on the ballot in November.
In May, Mr. Schlesinger also filed a quo warranto—a special form of legal request to test whether a person has the legitimacy to hold his or her current public office—with the state to remove councilors Mr. Sachs, Mr. Raths, and Ms. Bucknum from office on the grounds the elected officials’ terms expired.
The request was approved by state Attorney General Rob Bonta the same month, but an appellate court halted their removal after the councilors appealed.
Micaela Ricaforte

Micaela Ricaforte

Author

Micaela Ricaforte covers education in Southern California for The Epoch Times. In addition to writing, she is passionate about music, books, and coffee.

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