Thursday, December 23, 2004
A.G. Rejects Bid to Oust Cerritos Councilmen Over Term Limits
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A provision of the Cerritos City Charter requiring council members to wait two years before running again after serving two consecutive terms refers to the date of the next general election, not the date that a person becomes a candidate, Attorney General Bill Lockyer has opined.
In an opinion dated Monday and prepared for Lockyer by Deputy Attorney General Susan Duncan Lee, the attorney general rejected a challenge by a citizens group to the re-election of two council members who were elected to new council terms after sitting out two years.
At issue in the case is the interpretation of a 1986 charter amendment providing that a council member “who has served two consecutive four year terms shall not be eligible, for a period of two years, to seek reelection or be appointed to” the council.
Citizens for Responsible Government asked Lockyer for leave to bring a quo warranto action for the removal of council members Paul Bowlen and John Crawley. Bowlen served from 1989 to 1997, returned in 1999, and was elected again in 2003; Crawley, who is currently mayor pro tem and once ran for the Assembly, was on the council from 1991 to 1999, and was elected again in 2001, making him eligible to run again next year.
The city’s next scheduled election is March 8.
State law provides two means by which quo warranto, generally the sole means by which a court may oust an individual alleged to be holding public office illegally, may be sought—a private party may seek leave from the attorney general to file the action, or the attorney general may file it directly.
CFRG, in seeking leave, contended that by making it unlawful “to seek” another term, the charter bars a two-term council member from taking any action, such as filing nomination papers, toward becoming a council candidate until two years from the end of his or her previous term.
“This interpretation of the city charter effectively imposes a four-year period of ineligibility between the end of the second consecutive term and the beginning of the person’s next term,” Lockyer explained.
City Attorney Analysis
That interpretation is inconsistent with the analysis of the amendment prepared by the city attorney for the election at which voters approved it, the attorney general said. That analysis informed voters that if they approved the amendment, a council member who had served two consecutive terms would not be allowed to serve again, “whether by election or appointment, for two years.”
Allowing the members to remain on the council, Lockyer said, is consistent not only with the city attorney’s analysis, but with “well-established principles affirming the right to hold public office.” That right is fundamental, the attorney general declared, and may only be curtailed “when the law clearly so provides.”
In addition, Lockyer wrote, the issue is moot because if CFRG is correct, Bowlen’s election in 1999 was illegal, but his reelection in 2003 was not. And even if Crawley was illegally elected in 2001, he could still run next year.
“We have repeatedly declined to grant leave to sue in a quo warranto proceeding where the alleged unlawful term of office has expired, or the question of unlawfulness has become moot by subsequent events,” the attorney general said.
The opinion is unusual in that it interprets a city charter, something the attorney general declined to do in at least two matters earlier this year.
Lockyer was asked last spring to seek quo warranto in order to determine whether Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo held his office in accordance with the charter.
Several individuals, including Public Defender Michael Judge and former city attorney candidate Lea Purwin D’Agostino, had claimed that Delgadillo had not been “qualified to practice” for five years prior to taking office, because he was an inactive State Bar member for part of that period.
Lockyer’s spokesman cited the usual practice of not interpreting local charters and ordinances in explaining why the attorney general would not seek quo warranto. That case, unlike the Cerritos situation, did not involve a formal application for leave to seek the remedy.
Lockyer himself cited the principle two months ago as one of several reasons for denying leave to citizens of Inyo County who wanted to challenge the right of their undersheriff to also serve as county veterans service office. They contended that having a single individual hold both positions violated a local initiative prohibiting consolidation of the veterans office with the sheriff’s department.
Monday’s opinion is No. 04-907.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company