So. The Daily Pilot has just run a story on the area representation update given to the school board club meeting last Tuesday. I was not there: It was Valentine’s Day and I chose dinner with my wife over attending the meeting.

At the update, it was revealed that four of the seven trustee areas have less than half the population of the remaining three, ranging from a low of 16,369 in area 5 to 46,171 in area 4. The board wants to redraw area lines to even out the population levels.

The district is going through all this because they have been threatened with a lawsuit that claims violations of the Voting Rights Act.

According to the Pilot, “A complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court in August alleges the district’s at-large system for electing board members violates the California Voting Rights Act, saying it ‘suffers from racially polarized voting that prevents Latinos from electing candidates of their choice.'”

“The complaint alleges that the trustee areas, as apportioned, ‘exacerbate the vote dilution of NMUSD’s at-large election system.'”

In the Pilot story, school board club president Karen Yelsey is quoted as saying, “It [will] give a representation that each area is uniform across the district. They’re [currently] very out of balance.”

Yeah, well, there’s just one problem with the tack the district is taking: It won’t answer the complaints in the court filing.

Here’s the deal… The members of the school board club are elected not by the people in the areas they represent, but by all voters in all areas. That, according to the complaint is the chief reason why there hasn’t been, for example, a Latino member of the school board club in its entire history.

Making each area composed of about 30,000 people won’t change a thing. Members will still be elected by all voters and that will still favor incumbents and restrict true demographic representation. Put another way, think of the school board club as the U.S. Senate, which has two members from each of the 50 states. The vote of each state has equal weight so, for example, the votes of the two senators from Wyoming, the least populated state with about 583,000 residents, have as much power as those of the senators from California, which is the most populated state in the union with 38,332,521 residents.

Similarly, each of the votes on the school board club have equal weight. It is the local equivalent of a unicameral legislature and there are no checks and balances, save for the rotating elections every two years.

You could make one area 5,000 voters, one area 80,000 voters and distribute the rest evenly and the status quo would remain. Without election by area, nothing changes and that is just fine with the school board club – they like things just the way they are, thank you very much.

The short story on the issue is this: There needs to be a Latino school board club member for area 7, which is Costa Mesa’s heavily populated Latino area. That’s really what this is all about.

Unfortunately, the school board’s approach won’t do a thing to stop a lawsuit.

Also in the Pilot story, “The possibility of trustees being elected by the residents in their specific areas will be part of the discussions, Yelsey said.” 

Notice the language: “Part of the discussions.” That is code for “We know we have to mention it in order to make it look like we’re interested in it, but we’re not really interested in changing anything.”

Also from the Pilot story: “But trustee Martha Fluor of Area 3 noted that lawyers have sued several school districts and cities over their at-large voting systems in what she called a developing ‘cottage industry.'”

“‘While we are all about democracy and empowering individuals to vote, this is blackmail,’ she said. ‘And I find that shameful.'”

Here, Fluor is right. These at-large vs. area representation lawsuit threats are a cottage industry, similar to many of the ADA lawsuits that were popular a few years ago. But even if it is a cottage industry, so what? Does that change the fact that there is a long history of uneven ethnic and demographic representation for Costa Mesa’s Westside? Nope. And does complaining about the cottage industry add anything meaningful to the solution? Nope.

And just so you know that it’s not just me who is frequently bringing up the stifle, stall, and stymie tactics of the district, the Pilot story goes on to report that, “According to the August complaint, the plaintiff, Costa Mesa resident Eloisa Rangel, tried to resolve the matter without judicial intervention but was met with “foot-dragging and bald, unilateral determinations by [Newport-Mesa].”

So, you see, the board had their chance. In fact, they’ve had decades to right this wrong. But when faced with a formidable challenge, they reverted to form and tried to stall and in this case, they played right into the hands of waiting attorneys.  Once again, past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.

So, thanks for nothing, N-MUSD. Thanks for wasting more tax dollars and district resources on what should have been a simple and quick decision that you could have and should have made years ago.

Oh, BTW, note to the district: In case the plan is to split the Westside in an attempt to dilute the Latino influence prior to the switch to area elections, don’t bother – it won’t prevent the lawsuit. It’s really simple… Just keep the same areas and switch to election by area. Problem solved.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD