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 scwd.org, 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.