Lawsuit alters Hemet city council race

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The candidates for the Hemet City Council District 4 seat face confusion over candidate registration deadlines. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Missteps by city officials in Hemet have led some candidates and voters to be uncertain as to who is eligible to run for an open seat on the Hemet City Council come Election Day. To clarify matters, a lawsuit has been filed with the Superior Court of California. Three of the city’s districts are looking to fill seats Nov. 3. Candidates include District 1 incumbent Karlee Meyer and District 3 incumbent Michael Perciful. District 4 was left with a vacancy in July upon Bonnie Wright’s resignation, and this race has caused some confusion.

Registered voter and District 4 resident Kenneth Graff, who filed the lawsuit, learned that the city should not have extended the filing date for potential candidates because Wright moved to Arizona, July 9. It should have changed her status to a non-incumbent pursuant to California Government Code 36502(a), and all potential candidates should have been required to meet the original required filing deadline. All but one of the candidates running for a seat in District 4 did so.

Joe S. Males pulled his candidate intention papers July 20, but he did not file all the proper documents until Aug. 10, with the understanding that he had until the extended deadline of Aug. 12. The city of Hemet was advised of their error on or about Sept. 18. While the city’s website does reflect the nomination period for District 4 was extended beyond the original Aug. 6 deadline, City clerk Clay James sent an email to all District 4 candidates Sept. 29 stating “this extension was made in error and resulted in an additional candidate being added to the ballot in District 4.” To date, the city has not taken any steps to remove Males, the “additional candidate,” from the ballot.

State election codes also said that candidates have “until 88 days prior to an election” to submit nomination papers to the city clerk. That date would have been Aug. 7, but Hemet City Council is not open on Fridays, so the deadline was set as Aug. 6. Since Males’ papers were not submitted until Aug. 10, he should not be eligible or qualified to run for a city council member seat in District 4 and should not be listed as a candidate on the ballot, Graff said.

Rebecca Spencer, the registrar of voters for Riverside County, serves as the elections official for the county. In a signed declaration, she said her office is a neutral party in the litigation but wanted to advise the court of various deadlines, including time-sensitive printing and mailing of ballots and voter information material. She said that the printing deadline for all ballot materials was Sept. 8.

“Furthermore, with the ballots having been printed, the registrar will be sending approximately 1,200,000 mail-in ballots beginning Oct. 5,” Spencer said in her declaration. “From a practical perspective, any order from the court to amend, delete, alter or change any of the ballot or ballot materials would materially impact the Nov. 3, 2020, election. There is simply no way to reprint and redistribute election materials in a timely manner.”

While Spencer said that 1.2 million ballots are being sent to Riverside County residents, Hemet residents who opposed the erroneous ballot being sent out said that there are only about 8,600 District 4 ballots that need to be reprinted.

Graff, the lawsuit’s plaintiff and petitioner, said he and other voters will “suffer irreparable harm” if Joe Males’ name is allowed to remain on the ballot, alleging it will deprive District 4 residents of “making an informed choice as to which candidate to vote for.” He said that if election results are challenged after the election and the election is then invalidated, voters – in particular those that cast their vote for Joe Males – will be “deprived of their right to cast their vote in favor of the remaining eligible candidate of their choice for the office.”

Wright was first elected to serve on the Hemet City Council in 2012 in a citywide election, and when the city was divided into districts for the 2016 elections, she was elected to District 4. She officially resigned her position July 28. She moved out of the District 4 area, July 9, making her ineligible as an incumbent. The deadline for potential candidates to file can only be extended, if an eligible incumbent does not sign up to run by the original deadline. Since Wright was no longer an eligible incumbent due to her move out of the district, the deadline should not have been extended, Graff said.

She submitted a declaration to the court, saying, “I was erroneously advised that I had 30 days to resign once I moved out of District 4.”

The parties’ first appearance in court, via Webex, was Oct. 5 and Judge Craig Riemer denied Graff’s ex parte application to have the city of Hemet order the county’s registrar to reprint the ballots. His reasoning was that sample ballots have already been mailed out and the confusion of having them not be exactly the same as the actual ballots might cause confusion for voters and he felt it could interfere with the election.

Riemer scheduled a hearing for Nov. 30, before newly elected candidates are sworn in Dec. 5, to determine if Males was ineligible to be accepted as a candidate for Hemet City Council’s District 4.

More information about the Hemet City Council election can be viewed at https://www.hemetca.gov/962/Elections-2020.