What’s An Incumbent? Redistricting Renders Some Confusion

Incumbent; what’s in a title? During a redistricting year, that’s a great question. 

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Those interested in running for local offices, from city council to school boards, faced an Aug. 12 deadline to get the required number of signatures collected and paperwork filed in order to qualify for the November ballot. But in races without an incumbent vying for re-election, a five-day filing extension –  Aug. 17 – is triggered by California’s Elections Code.

The state code stipulates the extension should be allowed in races where the incumbent officer does not file. However, it also maintains an extension isn’t applicable if “there is no incumbent eligible to be elected.” 

An incumbent describes a person who currently holds a specific position or office. But redistricting put a metaphorical asterisk next to some officeholders’ incumbent moniker, moving them from one district to another because of where their home falls on the map. 

The Orange County Registrar of Voters initially included Rancho Santiago Community College District Trustee Area 4 and Irvine Unified School District Trustee Area 4 on its list of nearly 20 school and special contests with an extended filing period. 

But it later removed those two. After “additional review,” the Registrar of Voters concluded the current officeholders could not run for re-election in those seats because they now live outside those districts. 

In Placentia, Councilman Craig Green, who was first elected to District 2 in 2014, did not file to run. So Krista Hope, a Wagner Elementary PTA president, attempted to submit her paperwork on Monday, Aug. 15, but it was rejected. 

Green is what’s called an “ineligible incumbent.” He was “districted out” of his council seat when Placentia’s new boundaries were recently drawn.

In an interview, Hope argued city officials should have done more to make it clear this seat was not going to be eligible for an extension, especially when she went to City Hall to pull papers to run. 

“The law favors allowing candidates to run for office. Whenever there is any ambiguity, and where the city clerk did not give any warning that Mr. Green would be declared ineligible, the clerk should find in favor of allowing the candidacy,” Mark Rosen, a Mission Viejo-based attorney, said in a letter sent to Placentia’s city clerk and deputy city administrator this week. 

But Robert McKinnell, Placentia’s city clerk, said the state’s elections code does not allow for any exceptions. 

Hope said she filed on Monday, and not before the Aug. 12 deadline, because she thought she had those extra days to get her paperwork in order. 

“New districts add an element of uncertainty into the process,” said Dan Schnur, a USC politics professor. “So it is a good idea for election officials to make an additional effort to make sure that the relevant parties understand the rules.

“But ultimately, if you’re going to run for office, you need to understand the rules, you need to follow the rules, and it’s not that hard to contact the relevant election officials for clarification if necessary,” Schnur continued. 

Some of that confusion related to incumbents and redistricting has also played out among the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors redrew the lines for the county’s five districts in November and switched to the new boundaries in January — which meant some residents found themselves with a new county representative.

But when a majority of the board tried to tell District 2 Supervisor Katrina Foley to stay in her new district, she argued that until the next election, she should be able to represent the people who put her in office. An opinion from state Attorney General Rob Bonta agreed with Foley.

On Thursday, Rosen said no decision had been made on whether to pursue legal options for securing Hope’s candidacy in the upcoming election. 

But in his letter to city officials, Rosen pointed to Orange which granted a filing extension in its District 4 City Council race even though Councilman Chip Monaco (who is not running for re-election) was voted in as an at-large member and not as that specific district’s representative. Monaco was drawn into what is now District 4 when the city switched from at-large to by-district elections in 2020 and started transitioning to the new election format.

“If somebody wants to challenge (Hope’s) right to run, the burden should be on the person trying to restrict candidates from running, not on the candidate herself,” Rosen said. 

Hope said she will be prepared to run for the Placentia City Council in four years. 

“I found out from some of my neighbors there was going to be an open seat (this year), and I started attending City Council meetings to see what they were all about and started noticing some big discrepancies,” Hope said. “Rather than sit at home and complain about how things are going, why not get out there and do something about that?”

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

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