SCWD Board Approves Path to By-District Elections

A rendering of South Coast Water District’s proposed Doheny desalination facility in San Juan Creek. Image courtesy of South Coast Water District

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.

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  1. Mr. Langhorne:
    You wrote “2,000 ratepayers,” just as an FYI to readers that in our industry, the metric for human occupancy/voting demographics is actually determined another way, per/meter.
    Hence 2,000 rate paying meters is usually multiplied as an average (2—2.5 persons/household): In other words that’s approximately 4–4,500 residents who will have representation (voting rights) if successful. That’s a double-digit, significant increase in the total # of voters.
    My NGO (Clean Water Now) and most admirably Ms. Toni Nelson (non-profit Capo Cares, quoted above) were outraged, the “first responders,” both of us became heavily engaged, put SCWD under siege ASAP after independently coming to many of the same conclusions early this year.
    CWN constantly attends and tracks SCWD due to the Doheny Desalination and other regional issues. 90% of the time we’re the only enviro-NGO at meetings and/or submitting formal comments.
    No small irony that CWN immediately began fighting hard to bring So Lag’s 20 year disenfranchisement into the Board discussion. I live in lower Victoria Beach and NOT within SCWD boundaries.
    SLCA, for all of its bragging, alleging though even only 1-200 members MAX, they alone represents thousands? Totally MIA, never showed up at the multiple hearings, never submitted comments to our knowledge. Total flakes, asleep at the wheel while others did all of the ground/grunt work and heavy lifting. Haven’t seen any input regarding desalination either.
    For this issue, I recruited two non-SLCA, very savvy So Lag residents and LB community activist veterans to help put pressure on SCWD to remedy a 20 year glaring omission, we believe an intentional oversight when the good ol’ boys of SCWD were the subject of a LAFCO consolidation circa 2000.
    I don’t have permission to “out” these 2 incredible watchdogs, but the names of these ladies are embedded in the minutes of the meetings plus comment submissions. I’ll thank them here and then send them the article linkage.
    Roger E. Bütow Founder & Executive Director
    Clean Water Now (Established in 1998)

  2. Re: “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 a SL resident and SCWD customer, I welcome the ability to vote on SCWD Board of Director representation just as all other SCWD rate payers do. Thank you SCWD Directors for moving forward with this change. And please keep the legal fees to accomplish this correction reigned in. This is always a concern to ratepayers.

    Mr. Butrow, thank you for your ongoing efforts to help correct this outdated and illogical “long-time rule” which appears to have discriminated against SL and SJC ratepayers for way too long. I find it unacceptable for SCWD to accept the business we generate per households and commercial businesses yet disallow our participation in the same way that all other ratepayers are awarded.
    As you state, you are not a SCWD customer but a LB water district customer. I find this amazing and want to personally thank you for your input and due-diligence. Fact is, Laguna Beach has two City Council members and 4 appointed SL residents on a SCWD advisory board who have never bothered to educate SL residents on this non-voting situation. This contributes to the trust and transparency concerns residents of LB often express.

    As an aside, LB and SL ratepayers should be aware that water related costs also appear on their property tax bills. SCWD was asked to reference this on their website and invoices.

    Looking forward to the next step in resolving this voting issue.
    MJ Abraham, South Laguna Resident,


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