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Costa Mesa sues county over ballot measure

County registrar says he will file a brief siding with the city, which missed a deadline to put charter proposal before voters in June.

March 16, 2012|By Joseph Serna

The Orange County Registrar of Voters should put Costa Mesa's city charter initiative on the June ballot because officials thought they had met the submission deadline, attorneys for the city argue in court documents.

Richard Grabowski, outside counsel retained by the city, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Orange County Superior Court against the county registrar on behalf of City Clerk Julie Folcik.

The filing claims Folcik misunderstood the deadline for submitting ballot initiatives and points out that the deadline was missed by one day.

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The city has to sue Registrar Neal Kelley and seek a judge's order to place the charter proposal on the June ballot because Kelley's hands are tied by state election law.

Though the defendant in the lawsuit, Kelley said he will file a brief siding with the plaintiff, which is the city.

According to state government code, a city must submit a ballot measure to the county registrar 88 days ahead of the election — in Costa Mesa's case, March 9 for the June 5 primary.

Folcik emailed the charter initiative March 10 and submitted a copy in person March 12.

Grabowski argues in court documents that Folcik was under the impression that the ballot initiative only had to be finalized by Costa Mesa by that cut-off date, which gave the city a few days to spare because the City Council approved putting the charter on the ballot March 6.

"Thus, the delay in filing was both a product of [Folcik's] good faith belief concerning the timing for such measures and was only one business day," Grabowski wrote. "Thus, at a minimum, there are grounds for finding that Costa Mesa substantially complied with the filing requirements of [state law]."

Orange County's ballots aren't printed until early April, so there's no harm to the county for letting this mistake slide, the lawsuit claims.

Grabowski is seeking a priority hearing in front of a judge to get the matter settled before ballots are printed.

Charter opponents — like Costa Mesans for a Responsible Government, a community group — opted not to pile onto city officials for the mix-up.

"It just seemed to be some mistake and some confusion. I don't know how to judge that," said the organization's president, Robin Leffler. "It's kind of interesting because we're totally geared up for a June election and ready to go. If it gets on the June ballot or November ballot, it's out of our control. I just think that it's ironic that the city seems headed for even more litigation."

Costa Mesa is also defending itself from an city employee group's lawsuit seeking to stop the proposed outsourcing of city services.

The timing could work out for opponents, however. Many have argued that the charter initiative should be voted on in November, when voter turnout will be higher because of the presidential election. They also want to give voters more time to review the proposed city constitution.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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