Division, disenfranchisement, potential dissolution in San Simeon

August 5, 2023


Last year, the San Simeon Community Services District, under strong recommendations of District Counsel Jeffery Minnery, who said, or implied, the district was under the imminent threat of litigation, was divided into five voting areas to “comply” with the California Voting Rights Act. It turns out that there was never a legitimate threat of litigation, as purported.

The recent changes to the California Voting Rights Act that led to the district dividing into tiny voting areas is a failure for small districts. It harms a district of this size and defeats the act’s stated purpose – voting rights.

Disenfranchisement and loss of direct representation

Dividing San Simeon, a community of just 205 registered voters, into five voting areas has had unintended consequences that have adversely impacted all community members’ voting and representation rights, including those the Act intended to protect.

Because no candidate has come forward in one of the voting areas, that area of the community has no representation and no vote. This area has only 24 registered voters.  The same scenario nearly played out in a second area with a whopping 38 voters. Had no one come forward in both areas, 40% of the community would have had no representation.

This is disenfranchisement of the very members of the community that the California Voting Rights Act was intended to protect. San Simeon is majority Hispanic.

Breaking 205 voters into five voting areas has made it difficult to find a single candidate volunteer per area.  The probability of getting two or more candidates to compete in an area is highly unlikely. Directors will be appointed or run uncontested, giving voters no choices and no candidates on a ballot. A voter’s say in their representation has been lost.

This is another form of disenfranchisement.

Instability of district management

As has happened in small San Simeon, only three directors were left to serve due to this redistricting.

When a community services district operates with three directors, its functional viability comes into question. San Simeon has been operating with three directors since two resignations in April. A vacation, business trip, or illness causes meetings to be canceled and/or rescheduled. Recently, one director fell ill, so she had to join online; otherwise, the meeting would have been canceled.

Keeping scheduled monthly board meetings can be challenging. With only three or four directors, district business is compromised. Critical decisions are delayed, and bills may not get paid on time.

If a board operates with only three directors and one resigns, the board becomes dysfunctional and must operate in emergency mode.

Exacerbating the problem is that community members do not want to step forward into a crisis situation. Getting a volunteer out of an area with 24 or 38 voters is not a reasonable expectation, especially to replace one of the 24 voters who just resigned from the board. The pool is too small, and everyone knows each other. This is what has happened in Area C of San Simeon.

A three-director board is inherently unstable; a four-director board is marginally better. This is unacceptable for a district that provides a community with critical water and wastewater services, as San Simeon CSD does.

With elections at large and a base of 205 voters, the district struggled but managed to maintain a five-member board and provide some opportunity for voting for a representative. That is no longer the case.

What can be done?

1.  Change the law.

The legislature gave a little thought to small communities when they included the following section in the election law:

Part 4, Section 10523.

Notwithstanding any provision in the principal act, elections shall be at large in any resident voter district in which there are fewer than 100 voters.”

This law should be changed to 1,000 registered voters or greater. At an absolute minimum, voter areas must be large enough statistically to generate a single candidate for a director’s seat. To restore voting rights, it should be large enough to generate two or more candidates to allow residents to select and vote for a director representative of their choice for each area.

A request to change the law has been made to Assemblymember Dawn Addis’s office. State Senator John Laird’s office has not responded to an inquiry.

Such a change in the law will likely take years, and there is no guarantee of success.

2.  Tough it out – continue with the five voting areas

Give up on ever selecting from two or more candidates to represent you in the San Simeon.  Give up on casting a vote for a representative on the San Simeon board.

Accept the disenfranchisement of large community segments and continue to operate in or near crisis mode as the norm.

Accept that voters have lost a say in their representation, that is, lost their voting rights.

Roll the dice on keeping three or more directors on the board.

3.  The poison pill – dissolve the district – create a county service area for San Simeon

If there is no legal way to reverse the board’s action to divide into voting areas and return to elections at large, dissolution may be an option for San Simeon. Critical water and wastewater services are involved.

Under this scenario, a San Simeon County Services Area would be created to assume the district’s responsibilities.

As a County Service Area, the community would have an advisory committee/board or equivalent to represent the community’s interests. The committee members would come from the community at large, no more division of the San Simeon community into areas.

A review of the dissolution option would be undertaken.  The process would begin with a district-issued resolution to dissolve would be submitted to the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). Support from Supervisor Bruce Gibson would be needed.

A lot at stake

There is a lot at stake for our community. Voting rights need to be fully restored for all members of the community. A stable management arrangement/structure must be achieved.

I believe expecting timely changes in legislation is not realistic in California. If our capable district counsel cannot find a legal path to restoring voting at large, San Simeon may have no other option but dissolution.

Again, our community’s critical water and wastewater services are involved.  In parallel with the pursuit of legal reversal of San Simeon’s redistricting and potential legislation changes, consideration of the dissolution option should begin.

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Despite the adverse impacts of dividing our small district into five voting areas, our current three San Simeon CSD board members must be acknowledged for all they have accomplished this year. They keep charging and moving forward to restructure our district for the long term, righting the ship after years.

We have plenty of highly and over paid county employees to do the work, most CSDs should be eliminated.

Dissolution is the solution.

Absolutely, the County has a Public Works Department to take over.