Laguna Niguel’s transition to district elections mired by attorney fees dispute

District elections are coming to Laguna Niguel City Hall in November.
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Laguna Niguel avoided a costly legal fight when the city decided to adopt district elections outside of a courtroom.

In November, voters will elect City Council members by newly drawn districts for the first time.

But Michelle Jackson, a Dana Point-based attorney who threatened to sue if the city didn’t adopt the reform, is claiming that Laguna Niguel is avoiding one legal bill it shouldn’t be — her attorney fees.


In June 2023, Jackson sent the city a demand letter on behalf of an unnamed group claiming that the city’s “at-large” election system disenfranchised Latinos in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

According to 2020 Census data, Latinos comprise about 16% of Laguna Niguel’s population, but Jackson claimed that the city had failed to elect a single Latino candidate to City Council in the past 20 years.

“There is a clear disconnect between the significant Latino population in Laguna Niguel and the complete absence of Latinos on the City Council,” her letter read.

Laguna Niguel called a special meeting last July after receiving Jackson’s letter.

“The stakes of those lawsuits are huge,” said City Atty. Scott Smith of district election legal battles. “In every case that’s ever been tried, in this regard, the city ends up having to convert their system and has to pay the opposing party [and] their attorney’s fees.”

He noted that San Clemente, Rancho Santa Margarita and Laguna Hills had received similar demand letters.

Council members heeded Smith’s recommendation and passed a resolution stating the city’s intent to switch to district elections.

Abiding by the law, Laguna Niguel held two public hearings before drawing up district maps and two hearings afterward. In January, council members finalized the transition with new districts scheduled for election in the fall.

About a week later, Jackson sought attorney fees from Laguna Niguel related to her work in drawing up the demand letter.

In a complaint filed in late May, she claimed the city has refused to pay her. The lawsuit does not specify the amount Jackson seeks, but attorney fees that can be collected under state election law are capped at $30,000.

Jackson’s suit pointed to state election law in saying she’s entitled to payment since the city did not move on district election reform until her demand letter.

She claimed that the city’s press release issued last summer after signaling the intent to reform its election system attests to that.

“While transitioning to a district-based election system was not an existing goal for the city,” read the July 27, 2023, press release, “the city received a letter challenging its current election system and asserting that the city’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act.”

The city was served with the suit on June 19.

Laguna Niguel’s city manager’s office did not respond to a TimesOC request for comment.