By Tina Richards
Current city council candidate Mike Alvarez was thought to be, after two consecutive stretches on the dais, been termed out and disqualified from running in this year’s election. But court rulings on that topic say the city’s switch from at-large to by-district elections changes the grounds on
which term limits are based.
Orange will, for the first time this November, elect council members, based on districts. The city established six districts last fall, as part of a settlement in a lawsuit claiming the at-large voting system limited minority representation on the council. Now, candidates for a given district are
elected by voters in that district only. The entire city, however, still votes for mayor.
Before seeking another four years on the council, this time for the newly-established District 3, Alvarez sought legal counsel to determine whether he could run again.
Attorney Mark Rosen identified several court cases that set legal precedents, allowing a termed-out candidate, originally elected at-large, to “reset the clock” and run again in the district he or she resides in. The candidate is “essentially running for a new office.”
“Representing a district,” Rosen said, “is a different position than being an at-large council member. Previously, a council member represented the entire population. Now he or she will represent approximately 23,120 people.”
The smaller number of constituents, according to Rosen, also negates the need for term limits. Orange voters approved term limits in 1996 to, in part, eliminate “entrenched incumbents.” Smaller districts make it easier for challengers to get traction. With fewer people to reach, campaigns
are cheaper and grassroots efforts more effective. “No incumbent is safe or entrenched in small districts,” Rosen asserted.
In the legal challenges cited by Rosen, the courts recognized that the California Voter Rights Act (CVRA) gives by-district voting precedence over term limits. In Jauregui vs. Palmdale, the court found that the CVRA made at-large elections “illegal and had to be remedied.” Past “illegal
elections” should not “bar Mr. Alvarez from running in a properly constituted district.”
No word on the street
Despite the legal precedents cited to support Alvarez’s run for District 3, the City of Orange has said nothing about it. The city ordinance still states: “No person shall serve more than two consecutive four-year terms as a member of the City Council. No person who has served more than
six consecutive years as a member of the City Council, whether appointed or elected, may serve an additional consecutive term as a member of the City Council.”
In addition, the amendments made by the city council to the city’s municipal code were intended only to conform city council voting requirements with the by-district electoral system for six city council members and a separately elected mayor. Term limits were not mentioned.
Because term limits were enacted by voters, Alvarez explains, the city council cannot make adjustments to them. Any modifications to term limits will have to be approved by voters. In the short term, Alvarez considers the city’s silence to be consent. “The city qualified my candidacy,” he says.
“If the city believed I couldn’t run again, it would not have qualified me.”