Ian James is an environment reporter for The Desert Sun
PALM DESERT —The Coachella Valley Water District voted to scrap its at-large election system on Tuesday after a complaint by a group of voters that argued the system violated the California Voting Rights Act and was unfair to Latino residents.
The water agency’s five-member board voted unanimously to make the change, joining a growing list of cities and school districts across California that have similarly altered how elections are held in response to legal challenges.
Civil rights lawyers Robert Rubin and Megan Beaman, who represent a group of several voters, had notified the water board of their concerns last month and threatened to sue. They welcomed the agency’s response, while also saying they hope more is done to ensure Latino voters have adequate say and representation.
“This is what we hoped for. This is what the residents of the Coachella Valley are entitled to,” Rubin said in a telephone interview. He and Beaman said the water agency should next review the lines that separate its voting districts and involve the community through hearings to make sure the system is fair.
In previous elections, each member of the water agency’s board has been required to live within one of the five divisions, but voters throughout the area have voted at-large for all candidates. Under the ordinance approved Tuesday, board members will now be elected by voters of a single division.
The Coachella Valley Water District, which has about 108,000 customers, serves an area spanning roughly 1,000 square miles from Cathedral City to communities around the Salton Sea. Latino residents make up more than one-third of the voting age population in the area, but all of the water district’s board members are white.
“It was something that was due to come,” said Franz De Klotz, the board’s vice president. “While I have always thought of myself as representing the whole Coachella Valley, now it’s going to be a little bit more concentrated.”
Beaman and Rubin have argued that political power on the water board is linked to the longstanding problem of inadequate water and sewer service in poor communities of the eastern valley.
While new housing developments are required to cover the costs of building water and sewer lines, dozens of mobile home parks without water service have proliferated in the farmland of the eastern valley. Most of the trailer parks rely on septic tanks and private wells, some of which are contaminated with arsenic and other pollutants.
The water district’s officials have touted their efforts to help by seeking federal and state grants to pay for water systems for rural communities. De Klotz said he even donated his own money to help provide water filters for one mobile home park.
John Powell, the board’s president, said in a statement that the lawyers raised serious issues that had to be addressed. “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 said.
General Manager Jim Barrett recommended the switch in the electoral process, saying it would both provide better representation and sidestep a potentially expensive lawsuit.
In response to other possible lawsuits, the Desert Sands Unified School Board recently announced plans to change its election system, and the Palm Springs Unified School District is considering a similar change.
Rubin, who helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 2001, has since been involved in lawsuits across the state against cities such as Modesto, Anaheim and Palmdale, and recently reached a settlement in a suit against San Mateo County. The San Francisco attorney said the challenge to the water district’s system was his first focusing on a special district, and he called it “an important base of power.”
The lawyers are representing seven individuals and a committee of owners and managers of mobile home parks along Pierce Street in Thermal.
This article originally appeared on The Desert Sun website on Nov. 13, 2013.
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