Chino Hills Council Agrees To Public Discussion Of Term Limits

Against what appears to be the wishes of at least some members of the city council, Chino Hills Mayor Cynthia Moran has agreed to schedule a discussion regarding term limits for politicians in San Bernardino County’s southwesternmost municipality.
Whether that discussion will translate into the council’s willingness to use its authority to put a measure on the November ballot to allow the city’s voters to decide whether members of the city council, who also rotate into the mayor’s position, should be limited to one, two or three terms is by no means certain.
Nevertheless, a group of the city residents who are committed to the term limitation concept and are calling themselves by the rather predictable name of “Term Limiters” see Moran’s willingness to give the idea a public airing as a significant step forward.
According to John Bruner, one of Term Limiters’ ringleaders, a core set of residents who believe that City Hall has become set in its ways and needs an infusion – more like a transfusion – of new blood, said he and those he is networking with started with the assumption that reducing the number of years that Chino Hills’ citizen legislators can remain in office is not going to fly with the members of the city council. He said he and his colleagues are committed to engaging in the tedious, time-consuming and energy-demanding effort that will be required for a citizen-led effort to qualify a measure for the ballot. In order to force the placement of a measure to be voted on within any given jurisdiction, the California Government and California Elections codes require that proponents convince at least 8 percent of the number of voters in that bailiwick who voted in the last gubernatorial election to affix their signatures to a petition for such a referendum. Since 19,537 voters in Chino Hills turned out for the November 2022 election, Term Limiters would need to collect at least 1,563 valid signatures of the city’s electorate. With enough coordination and work, Bruner said he has confidence that goal can be met.
The city council, with a flick of its collective wrist, can, spare the group’s members from that chore in one of two ways. Under California Government Code Section 36502(b), the council can simply impose term limits on itself and its members. Or a city council in California can place a measure impacting its particular municipality on the ballot by means of a majority vote to ask the county’s chief elections officer, in this case the San Bernardino County registrar of voters to do so. The city would have to pay a fee to the registrar’s office to cover the cost of preparing the presentation of the issue into the voter’s handbook and sample ballot distributed prior to the election and the printing cost of including the measure on the ballot if it were to take that route.
In practical terms, however, as most politicians have ambition to remain in office, only rarely have California officeholders at any level subjected themselves to a limitation on their time in office. Only slightly more frequently have those officeholders cooperated with citizens in their effort to impose term limits.
Generally, in the United States, in California and locally, incumbent officeholders have an advantage over those who do not hold office who are vying against them. Incumbents usually start out with greater name recognition and positive name identification than do their challengers. With all else being equal – meaning when an incumbent spends no more and no less on campaigning than a non-incumbent in an electoral contest – incumbents statistically hold an 8 percent advantage over their competitors. That advantage increases when the incumbent’s superior ability to raise political donations is brought to bear. Since incumbents are in a position to approve or vote against any of a number of items that are considered by the city council, including development proposals, contracts for goods, contracts for services, franchises and the like, individuals and companies which have a stake in the decision-making process often prove generous in handing out political donations to those with that power, i.e., incumbents. The incumbents are then able to wield the money in their political war chests into greater electioneering capability than is available to those who are not in office and have nothing yet to offer to those deep-pocketed donors. In this way, it is very difficult for a newcomer to unseat a sitting politician.
Chino Hills, in particular within San Bernardino County and indeed Southern California, has, depending on your perspective, either enjoyed or suffered tremendous political stability since its inception as a city in 1991. In that time, it has had 13 city council members, a remarkably limited degree of turnover in its elected decision-makers over a period of three decades.
At present, Councilman Peter Rogers, who lives in District 2, is the longest serving member on the council, having been elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022. He has served as appointed mayor four times, in 2009, 2013, and 2018, and 2023.
Councilman Art Bennett, a resident of District 3, has served on the Chino Hills City Council since 2008, having been appointed and then facing no opposition in that year’s election. He was re-elected in 2012, 2016, and 2020. He has served three terms as mayor in 2012, 2016, and in 2020.
Mayor Cynthia Moran, who lives in District 5, was first elected to the Chino Hills City Council in 2012 and re-elected in 2016 and 2020. She is currently serving her third term as mayor, having served previously as Mayor in 2015 and 2019.
Councilman Ray Marquez was elected to the city council in a special election in 2013 and re-elected in 2014, 2018, and 2022. He served as mayor in 2017 and 2022.
Councilman Brian Johsz was appointed to the Chino Hills City Council in 2017 and was then elected to in 2018 and reelected in 2022. He served a single term as appointed mayor in 2021.
Supporters of the status quo who are opposed to term limits make various arguments against them.
One is that experience in the role of positions such as a member of a city council provides for informed leadership which understands the issues facing municipalities in general and the officeholder’s city in particular. Positions of complexity such as those overseeing government, term limit opponents maintain, require knowledge that is patiently acquired, and having an individual or individuals in positions of power who are still progressing through a learning curve can result in ill-conceived and poorly considered judgment calls, mistakes of naivete or outright ignorance, indeed ones that can prove dangerous. Moreover, joint powers authorities or regional or statewide organizations of governmental entities invariably utilize seniority within those confabulations as requisite for moving into their respective leadership positions, and a city which constantly replaces its council members will deprive itself of having a position of especial power and influence on the boards of those organizations. It is also pointed out that there are at large among the population individuals who have an innate or acquired talent for leadership whose insight, drive, determination, inspirational ability and wisdom can prove an invaluable asset to their communities, such that imposing an arbitrary limit on how long they can contribute is wrongheaded and shortsighted.
Some point out that external forces have already imposed on Chino Hills, as indeed was imposed on many other cities in San Bernardino County, what has been referred to as “artificial limitations” on who can represent its citizenry on the city council.
By 2014, a group of lawyers from outside of San Bernardino County – Lancaster-based R. Rex Parris, Milton C. Grimes of Los Angeles, Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman and Matthew Barragan of Los Angeles – began assailing the lion’s share of San Bernardino County’s cities and incorporated towns which conducted at-large voting in selecting their city council members with demands that they move to by-district or by-ward voting. Parris, Grimes, Shenkman and Barragan based those demands on allegations that there was a pattern of racially-polarized or ethnically-polarized voting in those cities and towns which had resulted in fewer members of certain ethnic or racial minorities – essentially Hispanics – being elected to those municipalities’ councils percentagewise than the percentage of Hispanics within their various and respective populations.
Since the terms of the California Voting Rights Act made it both expensive and difficult for cities to contest such claims of ethnically-polarized or racially-polarized voting even in circumstances in which the claims were invalid, most cities simply chose to convert their electoral processes to ones in which members of their councils were elected to represent the district in which they lived through elections in which voters were restricted to voting only with regard to the district in which they reside. The California Voting Rights Act contained a provision by which an attorney making such a by-district voting demand of a city would then be eligible to receive a $30,000 to $45,000 fee from the city for having written such a demand letter that was complied with. Consequently, in virtually every case where a city made a transition to by-district or by-ward voting, the attorney would collect that fee, and discontinue any further involvement in or monitoring of the election system transition.
Such was the case in Chino Hills. To the community’s credit, however, the city council as it was composed then – involving four of the five current members of the council – did not, as occurred with well in excess of 90 percent of the cases – set up districts in which the incumbents serving at the time the transitions were made were provided with an advantage against any of their emerging competitors for office.
One of the ways in which this manifested in other cities was the gerrymandering of the districts such that the district maps that were created put district boundaries between those who were in office, making it so incumbents did not need to run against incumbents. Moreover, the cities would engage in sequencing of the elections such that the terms for those seeking to be elected to represent the newly created districts were timed to begin just as the terms of the at-large council positions the council members who were eligible to run in the new districts ended. This was a baldly political and self-serving manipulation of the electoral process, and in city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city in San Bernardino County where the transition to district elections had occurred, those in office took advantage of the power and authority that had been entrusted to them to further advance their political careers.
Unlike virtually all of those cities and towns, however, Chino Hills had resisted the temptation to put into place a map in which the districts had been drawn to benefit those who were then in office. While the city did hire outside consultants and demographers to assist in the electoral map drawing effort, the map ultimately selected for Chino Hills in June 2017 for use beginning with the 2018 election was one that was drawn up by two citizens, those being Brian Johsz and Richard Austin. The city’s consultant, the National Demographics Corporation, provided the city with four maps which divided the city into five districts, one of which included districts that kept all five council members in separated districts. That map was presented in keeping with National Demographics Corporation principal Douglas Johnson’s recognition that most politicians want to remain in office and they have both the power and reach to provide themselves with an advantage in terms of how electoral districts get drawn. Accordingly the National Demographics Corporation gave the Chino Hills City Council the option of conferring just such an advantage on itself.
Worth noting is that the council as it was then composed, consisting of Ray Marquez, Art Bennett, Cynthia Moran, Peter Rogers and Ed Graham, rejected the option of adopting the map that put all five of them in different districts. Instead, they adopted the Johsz/Austin map. That map created districts in which three of the council members were placed in a district by themselves, two of the incumbents resided in the same district and one district had no incumbent. Specifically, the map put Ray Marquez in District 1, Peter Rogers in District 2, Art Bennett in District 3 and Ed Graham and Cynthia Moran in District 5.
As it turned out, not too long after the map was adopted, Graham, one of the original members of the city council when Chino Hills incorporated in 1991, resigned while he was yet serving in the capacity of a councilman elected at-large. He was replaced, notefully, by Johsz, a resident of District 4, who was appointed to fill in for Graham until his term expired in 2018.
Despite the shake-up to the council that was represented in putting Graham and Moran, theoretically at least, in competition for the District 5 post, the Chino Hills City Council has remained consistently composed of the same five members for nearly seven years.
In 2021, when the city was due to reconfigure its districts consistent with the 2020 U.S. Census, the council’s five members locked in for themselves advantages in the next several races they stood to run in so they could remain on the council. In setting the boundaries for the city council districts that were and are now in place in Chino Hills 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 election cycles, they tweaked the city’s electoral map only slightly, leaving Marquez in District 1, Rogers in District 2, Bennett in District 3, Johsz in District 4 and Moran in District 5.
This, for many, is problematic in more than one sense. First, the California Voting Rights Act was intended to facilitate the election of minorities – protected minorities – to elective office. The way things worked out in Chino Hills, where the intent of Parris, Grimes, Shenkman and Barragan was to make it easier for a Hispanic candidate to get elected, the actual overlooked so-called protected minority in Chino Hills was not Latinos, since Marquez was already in office, but rather Asians. More than eight years after Parris, Grimes, Shenkman and Barragan collected their money and have yet to set foot back into Chino Hills, no Asian has been elected to the city council or even come close to it. The political set-up in Chino Hills remains the same: Marquez, Rogers, Bennett, Johsz and Moran have a seeming lock on the city council offices. As someone pointed out, members of the Mafia don’t refer to the Mafia as the Mafia. They call it “Cosa Nostra,” which translates to “our thing.” In Chino Hills, many residents, in reference to Marquez, Rogers, Bennett, Johsz and Moran, when discussing the city council, call it “their thing.”
There are those, most certainly, who believe Marquez, Rogers, Bennett, Johsz and Moran deserve to have their thing, based on the competent job they have done while in office. Chino Hills is, after all, a democracy, and when the people have spoken, i.e., voted, they have voted in larger numbers for Marquez, Rogers, Bennett, Johsz and Moran, which entitles them under the rules that apply to be on the city council.
Bruner and other members of Term Limiters, who include Doug McCormick, Elaine Anderson, Sherry Anderson and Von Stiegel, would like to see those rules changed and they are asking the primary beneficiaries of the way the rules are now to assist them in making that change.
Councilman Marquez some two weeks ago had a sit-down with Bruner, McCormick, Anderson, Anderson and Stiegel, where he gave them a shot at convincing him that term limits represent a step forward for the city and he propounded his belief that term limits are already in place in that every four years the voters have an opportunity to turn incumbents out of office. It does not appear that either side succeeded in peeling the other off of its position.
If, as Moran has reportedly committed to doing, Term Limiters will get an opportunity to appeal not just to the city council but the larger Chino Hills community, in making their case during a regular city council meeting, which is open to the public, or at least as many members of the public who can squeeze into the council chamber, and which is broadcast on the local cable network as a public service. It is also available for viewing on the city’s website.
One selling point Term Limiters have is pointing out that if the council collectively outright resists the term limit concept and refuses to use its authority to order up from the registrar of voters placement of a measure asking the voters whether they are in favor of term limits, it will make it appear that the council fears having the public at large having a say in the matter and that the council is imposing its will on the voters. If, indeed, the council believes that term limits is contrary to the best interests of the community and people of Chino Hills, Bruner is prepared to assert, then the council should have no problem with testing their belief in the crucible of democracy by letting the matter go to a vote. If the council will not facilitate putting the matter to a vote, Bruner vowed he and the other Term Limiters will suck it up and do the heavy lifting of gathering the required number of signatures, putting the matter before the voters anyway and will then be able to use the council’s refusal to embrace the democratic system as a campaign theme.
A second selling point is that the current council members, for all intents and purposes, will have nothing to personally fear from embracing the term limit concept for some time. If term limits are approved by Chino Hills’ voters in the 2024 election, those limits would not be applicable to any terms past or current, but would go into effect going forward. So, assuming a two-term limit, Marquez, Rogers and Johsz would be eligible to run in 2026 and again in 2030 and remain, with the consent of the voters, in office until December 2034. A limit on terms approved in the 2024 election would be applicable only to elections occurring after the 2024 election, so Bennett and Moran would be at liberty to run in 2028 and 2032 and remain, with the consent of the voters, in office until December 2036.
“It’s their decision as to whether they will put it on the ballot,” Bruner said.
Meanwhile, he said, in terms of getting sufficient signatures on petitions to place the measure before the voters, “I think we’re about 65 percent there.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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