SCWD Mulls Switch To By-District Elections

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

By Bradley Zint, Special to the Independent

A legal threat is forcing the South Coast Water District (SCWD) to consider a new election structure that would have its board members chosen by district.

The move comes after Newport Beach attorney Phillip B. Greer accused the Laguna Beach-based district of being “racially polarized,” disenfranchising the area’s Latino population and violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

SCWD’s five board members live within the district’s service area — South Laguna, Dana Point, and areas of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano — but under the at-large system, they do not have to live throughout its boundaries.

Greer’s letter, dated Jan. 14, said it represents “concerned residents” in Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Each of those cities has a sizable Latino population, yet during the last 20 years a Latino person has never been elected to the board, Greer wrote.

“This disconnect between a significant Latino population in the district and the complete absence of Latinos on the board of directors is further evidence of the inherent discrimination of the elections process,” Greer argued, adding that the cities of San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point recently shifted their city council elections to an at-large system in response to similar concerns.

SCWD officials have requested an extension to Greer’s demand, which initially implored that the district change within 45 days or face a lawsuit. The extension would give the district until Aug. 25 to adopt an ordinance.

The SCWD board is scheduled to review the matter in closed session Thursday.

SCWD has had a five-member, at-large elected board since 2002.

District staffers plan to create a form at, to gather public input. They will also public meetings on the matter.

SCWD’s general counsel, Arthur Kidman, noted in a Feb. 21 response letter to Greer that the districting matter is further complicated by a merger between of San Juan Capistrano’s water and sewer services into the Santa Margarita Water District. That move could transfer around 1,000 ratepayers into SCWD. District leaders want to include these potential newcomers in a by-district election boundary analysis.

Should SCWD go forward with a districting system, officials said they will work with a professional demographer and the public to craft voting area boundaries, which will ultimately be reviewed and approved by the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Officials noted that contesting a CVRA complaint would be an uphill battle.

“To date, no public agency has won a CVRA challenge in court,” the district stated on a question-and-answer page on its website. “Most of the public agencies end up having to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees, which can range into the millions of dollars.”

Roger Bütow, an environmental consultant and founder of a Laguna Beach-based environmentalist group, Clean Water Now, said the by-district voting change could affect SCWD’s Doheny desalination plant, which his group opposes.

He noted that two board members —Dennis Erdman and Douglas Erdman, who is Dennis’ son — live near one another in Capistrano Beach. Under the districting system, they would have to run against each other.

Their service to SCWD is significant, Bütow said, because they have expressed concern about the desalination plant and provided “prudent fiscal and technological oversight.”

“They are very skeptical,” he added. “They’ve had a lot of questions.”

Bütow called the scenario in which districting boots one or both of them off the board “a change in the balance of power for oversight of desal.”

SCWD’s official position is that the estimated $118-million Doheny plant would provide a locally controlled, drought-proof source of water, initially pegged at up to five million gallons daily. They note that the district imports between 85 and 100 percent of its supply, which causes vulnerabilities.

The district also contends that the facility would be environmentally friendly by using slant wells that protect marine life by drawing water from beneath the ocean floor.

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  1. SCWD Legal Counsel Closed Session Report Update
    Clean Water Now is very pleased to inform SCWD ratepayers and those tracking this breaking story that the closed session report we observed, delivered by legal counsel, adequately addressed and was an affirming response to our laundry list of prioritized concerns. We’re guardedly optimistic. Terms and conditions had yet to be formalized in writing at Thursday evening’s meeting, but CWN is hopeful they will be memorialized asap.
    Responding to CWN’s previous 2 adamant oral and written petitions in February, SCWD acquiesced and hired an expert in these matters, retained the temporary services of retired OC Counsel and CVRA attorney Ben De Mayo. He spoke and shared his thoughts directly in open session following the closed door one. After thorough investigation and consideration, he informed everyone present and those following on the live streaming cable access that there are no viable options moving forward: By-District is just a matter of WHEN, not IF.
    SCWD’s counsel then revealed that also per our petition checklist, regarding the demand that additional time to transition be extended and agreed to by both parties, was acceptable. SCWD Board seats will remain at-large in this, the 2020 election cycle. The soonest that SCWD will become by-district is 2022.
    Another concern was that the 2020 Census should be integrated into any demographic analyses the District pursues. That and a new demographer will be retained as SCWD’s original choice was previously engaged for the extremely contentious and conflict-riddled transition to by-districts regarding Dana Point’s City Council reorganization in 2018.
    CWN felt that to remove the cloud of numerous corruption allegations surrounding the auspice of political chicanery and still painful acrimonious community fallout in Dana Point, better to find someone 100% independent and not controversial.
    It was announced that two (2) hearings will be held asap, hosted by SCWD, which will lay out and begin formalizing the 2020—2022 transition schedule. They could be delayed or continued due to the COVID-19 sequestering dynamics.
    Per another request made by CWN, it was noted that SCWD and their demographer resolve a voting hole, will start the South Laguna plebiscite rights conversation. Presently, due to both the City of Laguna Beach’s annexation of our County Water District coupled with the consolidation of SCWD contemporaneously circa 2000, currently the So Lag residents cannot vote for SCWD Board memberships.
    Bringing So Lag voters into SCWD’s sphere of influence, allowing them a direct vote, might necessitate a similar formal proceeding as those mentioned in 2000 under the authority of the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
    As many know, immediately after the 1.87 million gallon Thanksgiving sewer spill, CWN boldly but with confidence proposed that SCWD take over management of the City’s wastewater collection system. It is our understanding that particular topic dialogue between City and SCWD officials has already begun.
    Subsequent to the 2000 annexation, LB City Council has appointed LBCWD Board and water-related committee members in a political patronage, questionably nepotistic manner. CWN and many seated LBCWD members and employees opposed this in 2000 for that same predictable reason. They ceased being directly elected, hence subject to the will of the ratepayers, and this begs for remedy and redress of long-standing impropriety objections and grievances, including the cynical “Chinatown” optics.
    In conclusion, we will continue to track this and other regional industry issues, but we are encouraged that both Dennis and Doug Erdman will remain seated during this tumultuous, unstable period for SCWD. Without their talents, we suspected the present 3-member majority were seeking to acquire unanimity by fiat, their thumbs on the decision-making scale and thus have no in-house self-critiquing mechanism. Critical to CWN and the gamut of outraged community leaders who wrote and spoke, was the continued expertise of these 2 members during uncertain, turbulent and controversial times.
    “Where nary is heard a discouraging word” is a dangerous echo chamber dynamic, invites volatility, becomes an isolationist slippery slope when Board diversity of opinion and public stakeholder access plus transparency are surely intuited. CWN remains guardedly optimistic that SCWD Board and staff listened to the will of the people, then acknowledged the community outrage and are taking the appropriate steps to assuage concerns made by legitimate and motivated skeptics.
    Roger E. Bütow
    Executive Director Clean Water Now


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