SCWD advances by-division voting without South Laguna

The newly-adopted voting divisions of South Coast Water District. Image courtesy of esri

Ratepayers of the South Coast Water District (SCWD) will vote for directors by division rather than at large for the first time in November.

The SCWD Board of Directors voted 3-0, Vice President Doug Erdman and Director Wayne Rayfield were absent, to approve a new map March 24 evenly splitting the district into five divisions, a change adopted by many California municipal governments and special districts in recent years.

In January 2020, SCWD received a demand letter from Newport Beach attorney Philip Greer who claims to represent a number of SCWD ratepayers concerned that at-large elections stymie candidates who represent the district’s racial and socioeconomic diversity. District leaders immediately signaled their acquiescence to avoid a costly lawsuit claiming violations of the California Voting Right Act.

The pandemic delayed the 2020 U.S. Census results which then delayed the water district’s demographic study of their ratepayers in Dana Point, Capistrano Beach, and portions of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Ratepayers in two divisions centered in Monarch Bay and the harbor area of Dana Point will be the first to vote under this new system in November. The remaining ratepayers will vote in 2024, a district spokesperson said.

Despite the emphasis on enfranchising voters, South Laguna remains a contracted service area and lies outside the new SCWD voting boundaries. General Manager Rick Shintaku said his agency was on a tight deadline from the Orange County Registrar of Voters to get the election on the ballot and is still trying to avoid a voting rights lawsuit.

“We had to move forward on our timeline. We had an obligation to do so. If the community wants to be annexed into the South Coast Water District we’re fully willing to do so,” Shintaku said.

At this point, the Laguna Beach City Council must direct city staffers to clear the way for SCWD to annex South Laguna ratepayers into its voting boundaries, Shintaku said. Conversations between city and water officials are ongoing but haven’t afforded the votes to South Laguna ratepayers.

South Lagunans were saddened but not surprised by the water board’s decision to draw them out of the voting map, said Greg O’Loughlin, president of the South Laguna Civic Association. A number of councilmembers have already told the Association that South Laguna ratepayers should have the right to vote for a water board director. It’s unclear why the matter hasn’t reached the council’s agenda.

“We believe that all three players are on the same page and willing to allow South Laguna to regain its voting rights. It’s in the City’s hands to right this wrong,” O’Loughlin said.

Shintaku highlighted that the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, a panel that oversees public services in unincorporated county islands, would play a role in providing feedback on the annexation of South Laguna ratepayers.

“The bottom line is we would benefit much more if these folks were voting residents and South Laguna was in our voting area but we also don’t want to push ourselves into that situation because it’s the community’s decision,” Shintaku said.

Since South Laguna was officially annexed to Laguna Beach in 1987, many residents of the coastal enclave have claimed the marriage was never fully consummated, Councilmember Toni Iseman said. OC Parks owns and operates county beaches, even though Laguna Beach public safety agencies often respond when swimmers go missing. After decades of residents’ advocacy, Caltrans has broken ground on infrastructure projects that would complete sidewalks and provide wheelchair access along South Coast Highway.

The hold-up denying South Lagunans a vote for water board directors is another example of their neighborhood’s strained relationship with city leaders.

“With an election cycle coming around I would think people would be looking to take care of their residents,” O’Loughlin said.

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