CERRITOS — Eager to clear the legal fog swirling around a new charter amendment limiting council members' tenures to two terms, the City Council has decided to give the amendment's backers up to $10,000 of city money to sue the city.
In the latest development in the long, fervid debate over the amendment, the council is, in essence, paying the amendment's advocates to take the city to court. The amendment's supporters, persistent and vocal council critics, are for once all too happy to comply with the council's wishes.
"I think it's totally appropriate," said Chris Fuentes, one of a group of community activists who helped win passage of the two-term limit in a citywide referendum more than a year ago. "I think the people of Cerritos deserve to have answers."
Suit Fund Authorized
The council, in action Wednesday night, also authorized City Atty. Kenneth Brown to spend up to $10,000 defending the city against the community group's challenge.
Brown's doubts about the limit's application to current council incumbents have raised uncertainties about who can, and cannot, run for another four-year term.
Supporters of the charter amendment, called Proposition H, intended the ballot item to force longtime incumbents off the council at the end of their current terms. But Brown, in a legal opinion presented to the council last month, concluded that the amendment's language was so muddy it would not prevent incumbents Daniel Wong and Donald Knabe from seeking third terms this spring.
Wanted to Go to Court
After receiving Brown's opinion, the council directed him to research ways in which the city could obtain a court ruling--before this year's campaigns get under way. Brown, noting there had to be a controversy to get the matter before a judge, said last week the city's only recourse was to help Proposition H proponents launch a Superior Court lawsuit.
City Clerk Caroline deLlamas' declaration that she will issue candidate papers to Wong and Knabe if they request them is enough to spark a lawsuit, Brown said. If Wong, who has said he does not know if he will run again, and Knabe, who says he won't, did take out papers, that action could also be challenged in court.
Councilwoman Ann Joynt, a first-termer and the only Proposition H supporter on the council, applauded the unanimous vote to let the city pick up everyone's legal bills. "I'm pleased because I think this is very, very important."
Not Part of His Job
She said only Brown could have ensured that the amendment was worded properly to have its intended effect. But she stopped short of criticizing Brown for refusing to review the amendment language for its authors when the revisions were up for a vote in late 1986. Brown has said it was not his job to check the wording of a ballot item not written by the city.
"It was just such a grass-roots effort," Joynt said of the Proposition H campaign, adding that as a result, the charter change was not researched as thoroughly as it probably should have been.
Although the brief amendment clearly states that any council member who has served two consecutive terms has to leave office for two years before running again, it is not clear what bearing that restriction has on incumbents.
Brown concluded that a court would likely find the limit does not cover council terms served in part or in whole before the amendment's effective date this April.