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Coachella water district agrees to change elections system

November 12, 2013|By Jean Merl

Facing a possible lawsuit over the way it chooses its directors, the board of the Coachella Valley Water District voted Tuesday to drop its at-large elections system.

From now on, directors will be elected by geographic district. 

The change comes less than a month after attorneys warned  in a letter that  the jurisdiction's at-large elections were likely in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

"The letter raised some serious issues that warranted a thorough evaluation," board President John Powell Jr. said in a statement issued after Tuesday's vote. 

"I don't want any of the district's constituents to feel like they aren't fairly represented, so I wholeheartedly support the change," Powell added.

The Oct. 21 letter, from attorneys Robert Rubin and Megan Beaman, said the district's at-large elections system "dilutes the ability of Latino constituents to elect candidates of their choice ... or to influence the outcome of board elections."

Rubin, among those who helped write the state law, said he welcomed the change and is awaiting the water board's plans for drawing the geographic districts.

Moreover, the "decision to convert voluntarily allows the the district to focus its funds on water resources and avoid protracted, expensive litigation,"  Rubin said.

Initially, the board said it would consider asking voters' permission to make the change but later determined it had the authority to do so on its own and could save $235,000 in election costs.

Currently the five board members must live within specific division boundaries but are elected at large.  Under the new system, each will be elected only by the voters within his or her division.

Rubin, who said he has filed a majority of the approximately 20 cases that have been brought in California since the law took effect in 2002, said that Coachella was the first special district to have been targeted by activists seeking better minority representation on city councils, school and college districts and other governmental bodies.

Activists have been targeting jurisdictions with a significant minority population but little or no minority representation, a history of racially polarized voting and a method of electing office holders at large.  Latinos make up 34% of the electorate in the Coachella district, according to the attorneys, but all of its directors are white.

Several cities, including Palmdale, Whittier and Anaheim, currently are in court over their elections systems but some other governmental bodies, especially those for schools and community colleges, have adopted by-district elections voluntarily to avoid costly litigation.

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Twitter: @jeanmerl

jean.merl@latimes.com

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