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Mission Viejo’s first by-district election draws wide field of candidates

In an unusual election twist, all five of Mission Viejo’s City Council seats are on the November ballot, which was already distinctive because it’s the city’s first ever by-district vote.

The crowded ballot is the result of a court order issued by a judge in one of two lawsuits on term limits.

In all, 12 candidates are vying for the open seats, which are all for four-year terms, and every incumbent has at least one challenger in their new district.

District 1, which includes the northeastern part of the city and is bordered on the south by Alicia Parkway, is sure to seat a new face. No incumbents live in the newly drawn zone, so the race features a trio of newcomers: Deborah Cunningham-Skurnik, a small business owner; Bob Ruesch, a planning commissioner in the city; and Linda Shepard, a businesswoman and mother.

That means two incumbents will face off against each other in another part of town. Because current council members Greg Raths and Ed Sachs both reside in what is now District 3, which incorporates the southern most part of the city, they will compete for one seat. The pair faces a challenger in Cynthia Vasquez, a small business owner.

In District 2, bordered on the north by Alicia Parkway and the west by Marguerite Parkway, incumbent Brian Goodell is facing off against Stacy Holmes, a retired educator. The western most part of the city, bordered by the 5 Freeway, will be represented by whoever wins the seat in District 4, for which incumbent Trish Kelley and Terri Aprati, a corporate paralegal and notary, are running.

And Mission Viejo’s current mayor, Wendy Bucknum, faces off against Jon Miller, a former supply chain consultant, in the newly drawn District 5, which runs along the western side of Marguerite Parkway.

The last several years have been seemingly marked by one legal battle after the next in Mission Viejo. First, in 2018, Mission Viejo was sued over its at-large voting system, which a voting rights group said diluted the voice of minority residents.

Then, a pair of lawsuits this year challenged the terms in office of the council members who were elected in 2018 and 2020 while the city was working to implement a new voting system . In both elections, candidates were initially intended to serve two-year terms while city officials worked to get its new cumulative voting up and running.

When plans were delayed in 2020, Bucknum, Raths and Sachs, who won their seats in 2018, stayed on the City Council through that year’s election. The city attorney argues when the change in voting process didn’t occur, the terms reverted to what is spelled out in city law, four-year terms. And this year, after the idea for cumulative voting was ultimately discarded, Kelley and Goodell, who were elected in 2020, were set to also serve out four-year terms.

But an Orange County Superior Court judge in June ruled that all five seats must be on the ballot this November, and in August, he ruled the terms of Bucknum, Raths and Sachs ended in 2020 and ordered them removed from their current City Council seats. A state appeals court has blocked their removal for now.

The controversy surrounding their seats hasn’t deterred the incumbents from putting up a campaign or touting their City Council achievements on their websites and in a questionnaire developed by the Register. They’ve also received some key endorsements.

Still, a handful of their challengers listed transparency among city leaders as one of Mission Viejo’s biggest needs right now. Cunningham-Skurnik, who is not facing an incumbent in her district, questioned what she saw as the city “arbitrarily” extending the council members’ terms in 2020, and said her “remedy” is “to clean house and vote for new Mission Viejo City Council members in November.”

MORE: Learn about your candidates in our 2022 Voter Guide

District 1

A Mission Viejo resident since 1987, Cunningham-Skurnik said she’s supportive of zoning changes that could pave the way for commercial shopping centers with low occupancy to be repurposed with apartment units to increase the city’s repository of housing as demand increases.

To balance the city debt obligations while maintaining reserves, Cunningham-Skurnik said looking for ways to bring in more revenue “is a practical way to go,” and suggested renovating the city’s aging shopping centers as a potential way to get more people to spend money in the city. She said the city should look into obtaining federal grants to address its infrastructure needs, as well as collaborating with other cities.

Ruesch, who previously served as an Orange County Vector Control trustee, said he believes Mission Viejo is doing a good job now of paying off its debts and maintaining its roads and utilities. To ease the demand for more housing, he suggested small developments constructed throughout the community. Affordable housing should be viewed as “starter homes” by the city’s residents, he said.

“As a parent I wanted my children to be able to live near me,” Ruesch said. “When housing prices were simply more than they could afford, they moved to other areas that are prospering and (are) unlikely to move back. I hope to help solve this, so other families can stay together and experience our great city.”

Studied growth and revitalization of community gathering hubs are what Ruesch sees as the biggest need in the city right now.

Shepard said she was supportive of having “local control” for decisions on “housing, business and open space,” and that she was “pleased” with the road maintenance and traffic flow in the city.

“The city of Mission Viejo needs to work with other cities to reduce the negative impact of outside influences: decisions made at Sacramento and even the Board of Supervisors,” she said. “Crime, sober living homes, homelessness, vagrancy, cost of living, housing mandates, and even how we vote (districts now) come from outside changes in law and other pressures. Cities need to work together to regain self-determination for their own residents.”

As a City Council member, Shepard said she would assess cost and revenue drivers in making budget decisions, adding that “if we can help businesses be more successful and increase sales tax revenue, it is a win-win.”

District 2

Holmes, who spent 40 years in education as a teacher, principal, superintendent and county superintendent, criticized the city’s progress on creating more affordable homes, saying its current leaders have lagged behind other OC cities and complained “about mandates from Sacramento” while others have gotten to work building.

On how the city should balance paying off its debts while saving and spending, Holmes said Mission Viejo is “overdue for a transparent budget development process that evaluates each expenditure, service contract and city funded position with a fiscally conservative outlook.”

“The assumption that any source of new revenue is welcome must end,” he said. “Seeing 20 or more delivery trucks in a row flowing in and out of the Amazon distribution center several times daily must remind us that new revenue brings with it more impact on the city’s traffic, public safety and other services.”

But Goodell is supportive of finding new revenue sources for the city, saying that is the “most intriguing possibility” when looking at the city’s budget.

Goodell, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming who has been on the council since 2016, said the city should “up-zone” commercial sites into mixed-use housing to meet demand, and suggested seeking grants from the Orange County Transportation Authority to address the city’s infrastructure needs.

Asked what he sees as the city’s biggest need right now, Goodell said completing the city’s Core Vision Plan, “to create a real downtown for Mission Viejo.”

District 3

Sachs, who is running against fellow incumbent Raths and newcomer Vazquez, said helping build back up small businesses after the challenges of the pandemic is the city’s top need right now, adding that he is “focused on building out infrastructure that entices business to open in our city.”

“Our Vision Plan work along Oso Creek after the purchase of the old Stein Mart property is propelling that growth,” said Sachs, a combat veteran who was first elected to the council in 2014.

Sachs and Raths both touted the city’s reduction in its pension fund liability in recent years and the state of the city’s reserves when asked about budgeting, and said the city’s roads and utilities are well maintained.

“South County is doing very well with future infrastructure projects,” Sachs said.

Raths, a City Council member since 2014, listed school safety among the city’s biggest needs right now. He added that he is “pro-law enforcement” and said the city ensures there are enough Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies “on patrol 24/7 to protect our residents from criminal activities.”

Raths, a Marine veteran, insisted there is no lack of transparency at City Hall, and said to those who have expressed concern over the city’s and council’s legal challenges, he has explained the city’s arguments and they have been “happy with the explanation.”

“I’m proud to have served for the past eight years on the council,” he said. “Each year we had a balanced budget, plus money to set aside for reserves. This was very important during the recent COVID pandemic as we were able to grant almost $1 million to local businesses to stay afloat.”

Vasquez, the founder of a legal technology company, said she believes the city’s biggest need is fiscal accountability, and said the city needs to develop a budget plan that has public input and benchmarks to hit along the way.

“The city must re-prioritize spending and investment to allocate funds toward services that meet the needs of the community at large,” she said about city budgeting. “We must involve all parts of the community in identifying priorities and searching for the most cost-efficient means to balance expenditures and income.”

Asked why she would make a good leader, Vasquez said she is “honest, intelligent, and a big-picture thinker,” adding that, “as a minority woman and a mother of two multi-cultural daughters, my experiences offer a more diverse perspective. I want to inspire others to ask themselves, ‘Why not me?’”

District 4

Kelley, who was first elected to the City Council in 2002, said her years in the leadership role have been marked by “a track record of accomplishments,” and touted Mission Viejo’s myriad acknowledgements by magazines and other publications for its quality of life.

She said the city needs to keep local control over issues such as housing growth, zoning changes and sober living homes, for which Mission Viejo “is best equipped to address,” not state legislators.

For example, she said the council recently approved a sober living and group home ordinance to require them to register with the city, “and we are working with other cities to have a bigger voice with our representatives on this issue.”

As a City Council member, Kelley said  she would “continue to support our police; prioritize public safety and safe schools; protect quality of life; enhance roads, parks, facilities; bring new businesses to Mission Viejo.”

Challenging Kelly is Aprati, who has been a paralegal for more than three decades and has lived in Mission Viejo for 21 years. Aprati says she is running “to restore trust, transparency and accountability to our City Council,” qualities the current council “seemingly have lost the desire to espouse.”

“In my opinion, the biggest challenge our city faces now is a City Council and city attorney who are not representing or even care to understand what their constituents want,” Aprati said.

She questioned the city’s purchase last year of the vacant Stein Mart building off Marguerite Parkway to build its Core Vision project, and said city residents “should not have to be penalized by out-of-touch city leaders who perceive themselves as real estate developers, using revenue bonds to pursue their aspirations while cutting valuable city services.”

“We need to leave business development to businesses and support them through tax benefits and other incentives.”

District 5

Miller, the former supply chain consultant and Navy veteran, said Mission Viejo needs an “open, honest” government with a plan for how climate change will impact its future.

To meet housing needs, he sees “two complementary approaches” including setting aside “at least 15% of new developments or redevelopments for workforce housing for public service workers, veterans, and others,” and also zoning “for smaller, more discreet developments that tread lightly on infrastructure, traffic loading, and neighborhood sensitivities like views and green spaces. This would include intelligent mixed-use zoning to realize the potential of underused strip malls and commercial spaces.”

Miller said he would meet the city’s challenges “by listening to the people I represent and sharing my thoughts. I would set tough ethics standards and enable citizen involvement in major decisions.”

Bucknum, who was elected to the City Council in 2014, echoed Kelley’s comments on local control, saying she believes the city needs to retain power over issues such as housing development.

“We need to regain our local control back from the state,” she said. “We have to raise citizen’s awareness of what the city can and can’t do.”

She said there needs to be reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act “and lawsuit abuse as well as streamline the processes that unnecessarily drive up the cost of housing” in order to meet the demand for more housing in the city.

Bucknum says she is running “to maintain Mission Viejo’s public safety record, create a healthy local business economy, preserve parks and open spaces, to protect Mission Viejo’s schools and neighborhoods, and to maintain and enhance city infrastructure and the community facilities Mission Viejo residents use and enjoy. “

Source: Orange County Register

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