The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 seeks to put minority voters and candidates on equal footing with the rest of us by changing from at-large to by-district elections. In many, if not all, instances, it’s a good idea. But there has got to be a better way of getting there than this.
Last week, we surprised Coastsider Sabrina Brennan with news that she was suing the Montara Water and Sanitary District. In the suit she didn’t know about, she claims that the prevailing at-large voting system in the Midcoast district diluted minority votes and disadvantaged minority candidates. OK, she wasn’t exactly surprised she was participating in the action, but she did not know that a pair of Visalia lawyers had filed suit on her behalf.
But this is how it goes in communities large and small across California. The same attorneys (and we don’t mean to disparage them here, they are merely following the financial incentive) sent demand letters to the Coastside Fire Protection District, San Mateo County Harbor District, Sequoia Healthcare District and other local agencies, warning them that if they didn’t change to voting by district they would have have their day in court.
These complaints, generally written in boiler plate, always mention “vote dilution” and “racially polarized” voting, very real issues that can and do keep minority candidates from elected office. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that nearly a third of jurisdictions that made the switch to district voting added minority representation as a result.
In almost every instance, local elected officials across the state who are faced with a demand letter simply capitulate — often against their will — even if there is little evidence that a district like ours in Montara and Moss Beach unfairly disadvantages protected classes of citizens. The courts have made clear their support for a strong California Voting Rights Act.
Perhaps surprisingly, the unwitting plaintiff in last week’s case against MWSD acknowledges that her impetus for involvement wasn’t a fervent wish to protect protected classes — though we’re sure that Brennan sincerely supports more diverse representation. No, she says her involvement began when she became miffed that the district wasn’t providing water quality reports to residents of Pillar Ridge. (She is right about one thing: The MWSD board could use some new representation. Some members have been on the board for more than 20 years.)
We haven’t gotten to the really dumb part yet, so here goes: Marguerite Melo, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, told us the day after the suit was filed that it was already settled at the time she submitted it to the San Mateo County Superior Court. She called it a “cooperative lawsuit” and said MWSD officials wanted court oversight of the process. What she didn’t say was that the district’s elected officials wanted to be able to tell constituents that they were forced to comply and didn’t merely acquiesce to a good idea.
That, of course, cost ratepayers money, as does so much of the blather of the Coastside's elected officials over water and sewer. The district is on the hook for plaintiff’s attorney fees and made a conscious decision to extend the process, thus incurring more fees.
At least other Coastside jurisdictions had the good sense to end the fight as quickly as possible and pay up.