The South Coast Water District Board of Directors approved an interim settlement agreement Thursday that clears the way for the agency to transition to by-district voting in 2022.
If the directors approve the new voting system next year, SCWD would join the hundreds of other public agencies to move away from at-large voting under threat of lawsuits authorized by the California Voting Rights Act.
In January, 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 socio-economic diversity. District leaders immediately signaled their acquiescence to avoid a costly lawsuit.
“The threat of litigation under the CVRA is a real threat to have a court actually establish those five director divisions, to pay attorney’s fees for Mr. Greer, and to pay the district’s own costs for litigation,” SCWD general counsel Arthur Kidman said.
SCWD agreed to hold four public meetings to discuss the district boundaries and demographic information they’ll be based on. District leaders want to consider the results of the 2020 U.S. Census in this calculus.
The first hearing is tentatively scheduled for June 11, 2020. The Board’s intent is to adopt a resolution at a fifth hearing set for Oct. 31, 2021.
The 2,000 ratepayers in South Laguna who are unable to vote in SCWD elections may see relief after years of disenfranchisement because of a long-standing rule. The SCWD Board agreed Tuesday to study the feasibility of having registered voters in South Laguna Beach and San Juan Capistrano, who are not currently district residents, to become eligible to vote in future by-district elections.
As part of the settlement, the SCWD Board agreed to pay Greer the state-mandated legal fees of $20,000 for his work as the unnamed plaintiffs’ attorney within five business days, according to a staff report. Greer may seek up to an additional $20,000 for reasonable attorney fees and costs for work performed until the date of the election ordinance’s adoption. State law permits attorneys to bill up to $350 per hour for their work on these voting rights cases.
Capistrano Beach resident Toni Nelson wrote in a letter to board members that she’s concerned about SCWD spending taxpayer dollars to pay Greer without obtaining documents that substantiate his work product.
“I am uncomfortable with the district paying anyone for any type of service without substantiation,” Nelson wrote. “Instead, I suggest he be paid a minimum advance fee of $20,000 now with the understanding that he will have to substantiate all fees.”
Greer did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning.