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    Mission Viejo ordered to pay more than $715,000 in attorneys’ fees, judge says
    • October 13, 2023

    Mission Viejo must pay more than $715,000 in attorneys’ fees, a judge said, to a resident who challenged how the city extended three councilmembers’ terms while it worked on implementing a new voting system.

    Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm last week ordered the city to pay additional fees, bringing the total to $715,137. The city is disputing at least some of those awarded fees, City Attorney Bill Curley said.

    City leaders intended to transition to a new cumulative style of voting in Mission Viejo in response to complaints that its election process diluted the voting power of minority residents. It would have required all council members to be elected at the same time, so three seats were elected to two-year terms in 2018 to even things out. The change was ultimately abandoned because of pushback from the state, and the city instead instituted district-based voting last year, which required council terms to be staggered again.

    In 2022, Schwarm ruled three councilmembers — Ed Sachs, Greg Raths and Wendy Bucknum — had stayed longer than the two years to which voters elected them in 2018 and would need to vacate their seats. (Bucknum is the only one who is still a councilmember following the elections last year.)

    Mission Viejo resident Michael Schlesinger filed legal action in 2021 challenging whether the three councilmembers’ tenure should have been prolonged as city officials worked out the new city-wide voting system, which they said took longer than expected. City officials argued because the city didn’t change its election process, the terms reverted back to their original four years in the city code.

    Related links

    3 Mission Viejo council members removed from office, court may still consider appeal
    Term extensions in Mission Viejo challenged as voting for City Council is changed
    Mission Viejo drops cumulative voting idea, moves to district-based elections

    Bucknum, Raths and Sachs were removed from office in November 2022, but the ruling did not bar them from running for reelection. Bucknum won her election to her seat. However, due to how the new districts were drawn, Raths and Sachs had to run in the same district. They lost to Councilmember Cynthia Vasquez.

    “These attorneys’ fee awards vindicate our efforts to hold the city and the City Council accountable,” said Schlesinger. “What is sad is that all the city and the City Council had to do was simply follow the law.”

    Schlesinger also successfully challenged the plan to extend the terms of Councilmembers Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell, who were elected in 2020, by an additional two years. Schwarm ordered that all five seats be on the ballot last year.

    “In simple terms, Goodell, Kelley, Sachs, Bucknum and Raths tried to deprive myself and my fellow citizens of the right to vote,” said Schlesinger. “They got caught and are paying the consequences for their despicable and unprecedented actions.”

    Neither Bucknum, Goodell, Kelley, Raths or Sachs responded to requests for comment.

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    While the issue involving the length of councilmembers’ terms has been decided, the city is still in a dispute over the attorneys’ fees, Curley said.

    “As to the money that plaintiff’s legal counsel now seek from city taxpayers, the city notes that the total amount sought in court filings by plaintiff’s three law firms was some $1.2 million,” Curley said, pointing out the trial court awarded about half of that.

    The city is appealing the award of fees in one case and might in another, he said.

    “I do not think any of us expected to spend this much time on the case,” said attorney Aaron Hand, who represents Schlesinger. “Because of the efforts the city went through to delay the process, to push out a resolution and the legal battle they decided to put us in, we all ended up spending more time fighting out attorney fees than we did over the substance of the case.”

    ​ Orange County Register