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Costa Mesa City Council moves to allow noncitizens to serve on city commissions

U.S. and California flags flying outside Costa Mesa City Hall
The Costa Mesa City Council this week removed a district residency requirement for planning commissioners and a provision that said they must be registered U.S. voters.
(Times Community News)

A discussion by the Costa Mesa City Council about district residency requirements for planning commissioners — and whether they ought to be registered voters — spawned a debate on American citizenship and representation this week.

After a 4-3 vote, planning commissioners will not need to reside within the voting districts they represent or be U.S. citizens to serve.

The panel gave a second reading this week to an ordinance that would allow commissioners to change residences more broadly within Costa Mesa and give council members, who nominate commissioners in their respective districts, more discretion in filling vacancies.

Several residents speaking during the public-comment period decried the move.

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The city’s “six districts need to be represented equally and fairly,” said Mary Spadoni. “Every district is unique and needs its representation.”

Some took issue with a provision in the new ordinance that commissioners would not have to be registered to vote in U.S. elections. State law allows undocumented residents to hold public office.

Santa Ana’s thousands of undocumented residents will now have the ability to serve on city boards, commissions and committees.

The provision was added at the July 20 meeting, after an outdated council policy accidentally included in a staff report prompted fresh discussion about whether green card holders, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and other lawful residents who cannot vote should be allowed to serve as commissioners.

Hengameh Abraham, an Iranian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen at 21, said not requiring citizenship was a slap in the face to the qualified voters who elected the council members.

“The only people who should be representing constituents, at any level, should be invested enough in their community that they are registered voters themselves,” she said.

Former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis agreed.

“All public officers under the requirements of the state of California must swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of California and swear to defend that,” she said. “So they should be an elector.”

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New California laws for those here illegally include letting them serve on government boards and banning immigration arrests in state courthouses.

Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds made a motion to adopt the ordinance, explaining why she’d previously suggested removing the provision requiring commissioners to be registered voters.

“It’s one of my highest priorities that every Costa Mesa resident feels welcomed to be a part of our processes,” she said, citing the city’s mission statement to promote a safe and inclusive community for all. “We are a safer city and a better city if every resident has an opportunity to be an active member of our community.”

But Mayor John Stephens, who previously supported removing the district residency and voter requirements, made a substitute motion to keep the voter provision, saying his thinking had changed.

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“Planning commissioners make decisions and actually vote on items that are very important to our community, many of which never come to the City Council,” he said. “That person who sits in that position should be able to also vote — vote for council, vote for the governor [and] the president.”

Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Marr, a U.S. Navy veteran, cited a 2003 New York Times article about Marines who were not U.S. citizens and died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She said the idea that noncitizen residents are somehow less qualified to serve their community or less representative of America offended her.

“There are plenty of green card holders who would absolutely give their lives to this country,” she said. “I’m so frustrated with the idea that those people are still not good enough to represent us on the Planning Commission.”

Stephens was the only panelist to vote for his substitute motion. Reynolds’ original motion passed 4 to 3 with Stephens and councilmembers Manuel Chavez and Don Harper opposed.

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Cardine writes for Times Community News.


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