Caught between the law and reality, the Los Osos Community Services District is moving forward with a process that should bring it into compliance with a State voting rights law, and protect against a potential lawsuit.
The CSD on Sept. 2 is holding the second of four required public hearings on possibly changing the way its directors are elected, going from “at-large” communitywide voting, where all voters get to vote for all candidates, to dividing the town into districts with each electing a representative to the board.
The idea is to make sure that certain minorities, so-called protected classes of people, are not discriminated against. It applies mainly to towns where the individual neighborhoods are dominated by one race or ethnicity of people, but all communities have to at least investigate the matter.
The issue for Los Osos started last year when the CSD was faced with the “California Voting Rights Act,” a bill that sought to ensure minorities were not being disenfranchised by at-large voting in City elections.
“In order to avoid what they call a ‘demand letter’,” said LOCSD General Manager Ron Munds, “which would automatically result in a $30,000 fee to the plaintiff claiming that our at-large voting system is racially polarized, we are moving down the path to districting.”
According to the California Legislative Counsel’s Office: “The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 [CVRA, S.B. 976, enacted in 2002], prohibits the use of an at-large election in a political subdivision if it would impair the ability of a protected class, as defined, to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence the outcome of an election.
“The CVRA provides that a voter who is a member of a protected class may bring an action in superior court to enforce the provisions of the CVRA, and, if the voter prevails in the case, he or she may be awarded reasonable litigation costs and attorney’s fees. The CVRA requires a court to implement appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections that are tailored to remedy a violation of the act.”
But the law also “would prohibit the use of a district-based election in a political subdivision if it would impair the ability of a protected class, as defined, to elect candidates of its choice. The bill would require a court to implement specified remedies upon a finding that a district-based election was imposed or applied in a manner that impaired the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice.”
According to an article posted on www.cacities.org, and authored by attorneys Marguerite Mary Leoni and Christopher E. Skinnell, “The potential consequences of this legislation are significant: it could force a city or special district to abandon an electoral system that may be perfectly legal under federal law, in the process exposing the jurisdiction to the possibility of paying very high awards of attorneys fees to plaintiffs.”
In response, the article said, “Jurisdictions have learned to consider changing to a district-based electoral system when they have minority group residents who are sufficiently numerous and geographically concentrated to form a majority in a single- member district, especially when that minority group, despite running candidates for election, consistently fails to elect.”
So in essence, the CSD is looking into dividing the town into districts to head off a potential lawsuit, but it’s not so easy here, as the town’s minority populations, which in Los Osos is mainly Hispanics and Filipinos, is distributed throughout the community, and not focused in any particular area. Because of this, dividing the town up could cause more problems than solutions.
Last January the LOCSD passed a Resolution, Munds explained, stating they were moving to district based elections to “provide us with legal cover until we had a chance to seriously look at this. We hired a consultant in June and had our first public hearing on the matter at our August meeting.”
The law requires there be at least four public meetings to draw a district map, an exercise that may in the end not be adopted. Munds said, “At the end of the process the Board does have to authority/ability to not move forward, though that can result in legal jeopardy if someone decides to sue the CSD.”
The situation is similar in some regards to the Americans with Disabilities Act and people who made a business out of having attorneys send demand letters to businesses, especially restaurants, for alleged violations of the ADA. The demand letters come with offers to settle out of court to avoid costly litigation.
Most businesses chose to settle for relatively small amounts of money, though the settlements usually included a pledge to correct the ADA deficiencies.
The CVRA has its critics, who claim the law makes race a predominant factor in elections and that it does not make sense to eliminate the requirement to establish a geographic district where there is a minority concentration. On the other hand, advocates claim that at-large elections allow bloc voting that can keep minorities out of office.
The change to district elections, if the board decides to make the change, could prove problematic in Los Osos in another way. Munds said, “The general consensus here is that districting is not a good idea because we have problems just getting people to run for office.”
Having to find people who live in each district to run for the board would likely complicate the situation, and if no one signs up to run in a district, that would leave the board to appoint someone.
The CSD was waiting to see what the new census says about the town’s demographics. “With the 2020 Census now out,” Munds said, “we should have a better idea about our demographics but I doubt things have changed significantly from the 2010 census.”
If there has been any significant change to Los Osos’ ethnic make up it certainly hasn’t been because of housing growth, as the town is now under a de facto water moratorium, due to over drafting of the groundwater aquifer.
The LOCSD will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2 at the district’s boardroom, 2122 9th St. All interested persons are invited to attend the hearing. The CSD returned to live meetings just this month for the Board of Directors and all its various committees.
“The Board of Directors,” reads a meeting notice sent out by the CSD, “will discuss, consider, and take community input on the composition of potential Board of Directors election district boundaries, and such other matters as may be related to the formation of Board of Directors districts.”
The plan is to release the proposed district map showing what the boundaries would be soon after the meeting and then the two additional meetings needed for the process would be scheduled.
For information and a staff report on the issue, residents can go to the CSD Office, 2122 9th St., or go online to: www.losososcsd.org. It’s important to speak up if residents have strong feelings about the issue because if a lawsuit is filed sometime down the line, the court may limit arguments to just what has been previously brought up, either in person at a meeting or in written comments submitted prior to the meeting, according to the CSD. For more information, call CSD General Manager Munds, at (805) 528-9370 or contact him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.