Opinion: Common Sense

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Laguna and Elections by-District

By Michèle Monda

It is hard to keep up with all the laws and regulations coming from Sacramento affecting our small town.  The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), while signed into law in 2002, could cause a major change to how we elect our City Council.

The CVRA allows plaintiffs to sue a local agency or board where at-large elections may prevent protected classes, such as racial and socio-economic minorities, from electing candidates of their choice. Underrepresented neighborhoods like South Laguna or the Canyon, that have no elected representatives as residents on the City Council, could also benefit from this law. For preparing a demand letter and work leading up to that ask, a plaintiff can recover up to $30,000 in attorney’s fees – even if the agency immediately makes the change to by-district elections.

Los Angeles attorney Kevin Shenkman has at least 50 of these cases under his belt. Shenkman told the Los Angeles Times that he estimates there are still around 350 cities with at-large city councils that could be challenged.

In an email to the Independent, Shenkman said Wednesday that he has no idea whether there is racially polarized voting in “350 more cities” and that cities without this circumstance can use otherwise legal election methods.

From receipt of the demand letter the agency has 45 days to adopt a Resolution of Intent to consider a transition to by-district elections. Absent an agreement between the parties, an agency has 90 days to enact an ordinance establishing the boundaries and a transition plan to make the switch. Is your head spinning yet?

According to National Demographics Corporation, 195 California jurisdictions have changed or are changing to by-district due to the CVRA. Every public agency that has challenged this conversion to by-district voting under CVRA has lost either in court or settled, been forced to change and pay at least some portion of the plaintiff’s legal fees. That’s a 100% success rate for the plaintiffs.

The South Coast Water District, serving South Laguna residents, received such a letter Jan. 14 from the law offices of Phillip Greer. The Board of Directors held a special meeting to discuss this with the public and have decided to go ahead with the switch to by-district. Why?  According to their legal counsel, Art Kidman, SCWD does “not have a leg to stand on to fight it” and there is no room for debate with this law.

No agency has been successful in fighting them and fees can run into the millions of dollars for litigation for which the agency is ultimately responsible. That cost would be passed on to ratepayers. They have hired a demographer to draw the district lines and will hold the requisite public meetings on the boundaries. What is interesting is that South Laguna is a part of the water district but has no representation on the board. It’s a very convoluted system involving a City Council committee for representation but South Laguna does not vote for any board members. I’m personally hoping that somehow in this mess South Laguna can get to vote for a board member.

Why am I sounding the alarm? Because Laguna Beach could be next. The City of Orange was sued and this November will elect by-district councilmembers. So will San Juan Capistrano. Dana Point adopted by-district voting in 2018 after being sued.  While this was originally intended to increase representation for minority groups, it can include underrepresented areas of a town. As of the 2010 census, Laguna Beach is 85.7% White, 7.3% Hispanic, 3.6% Asian and 0.8% Black so I don’t know if that hits the threshold for minority underrepresentation. But I do know we could be next and I doubt our City Council would want to initiate costly litigation.

I also know I don’t have representation on the council. South Laguna has always been an afterthought. My friends who live in the Canyon feel the same way. Thinking about the benefits of district voting I know it would make for a more diverse candidate pool that could afford to campaign. They could actually walk their district to talk to voters individually and not have to depend on political action committee money, union money, or collecting huge sums to mount a citywide campaign.

Since the SCWD has now fallen victim to the CVRA, I believe it is prudent for City Council to consider what might happen if they get a letter. They should create a plan for how to react while they have time and rarely does anything good come from having your toes held to the fire. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Michele. I’m following the SCWD district election process as well. I’m very pleased that they are addressing the issue with reason and practicing due diligence as they move forward in exploring options. I agree that South Laguna rate payers should have a voice and hopefully a seat on the SCWD Board. I feel the same about our City Council representation. SL and Laguna Canyon communities have been overlooked and under-represented for way too long. Mandatory elected official representation will stop this and the issues specific to our areas may finally get resolved. We need Leaders from our communities who experience them to prioritize and solve them. I support District elections and CC term limits.

  2. Although I understand your desire for representation, be careful that your wish for districting doesn’t actually make things worse. People in the Capistrano Beach area of Dana Point have similarly felt like the stepchild in Dana Point. When we had at large elections, all 5 council members had to consider our voting power as a group and listen to us as potential
    voters. We could vote for them (or not) and could always recall them if we were really upset. Now, with districts we’ve gone from 5 votes to only 1 and our representative can be completely ignored along with us. Now our council majority of 3 is poised to inflict short term vacation rentals on Capo Beach and Lantern District which have few HOAs, while protecting their own district residents who predominantly live in HOAs protected by CC&Rs. We were always a minority but now we have 1 vote instead of 5 and can neither vote for nor recall 4/5s of our council. They have no incentive to support or care about our district at all. Please think carefully before you wish for districting. It’s much easier to find a good person to run from your area at large without giving up 80% of your voting power.

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