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Irvine Ranch Water District faces possible lawsuit over at-large election of board members

Attorney Kevin Shenkman has spent the past few years suing or threatening to sue Southern California cities and school and special districts that have at-large elections.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

Like several other cities and agencies before it, the Irvine Ranch Water District is staring down the barrel of a potential lawsuit seeking to change the voting system the district uses in its board elections.

In a letter sent Feb. 7, attorney Kevin Shenkman alleges the at-large election system — in which the five governing board members are chosen by voters throughout the district’s service area — violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and “dilutes the ability of Latinos and Asians … to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome” of elections.

He claims “there has not been a single Latino or Asian to serve on IRWD’s governing board” since the agency was formed in 1961, even though those groups make up a “significant portion” of the district’s population.

Irvine Ranch serves more than 380,000 residents in Irvine, portions of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Lake Forest, Orange and Tustin and some unincorporated areas of Orange County.


Should Irvine Ranch not voluntarily change its election system, Shenkman warned, he “will be forced to seek judicial relief” on behalf of his clients, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and its members.

Beth Beeman, Irvine Ranch’s director of public affairs, said Thursday that the concerns raised in the letter “are important to us because we have always believed our customers come first.”

“This is illustrated by our long history of active engagement and participation in the communities we serve and the many ways we offer our customers to learn, engage and participate in IRWD programs, both in the digital arena and in person,” she said in a statement. “We can provide further comments once we have had an opportunity to better understand and evaluate the letter.”

Shenkman and his firm, Malibu-based Shenkman & Hughes, have threatened or filed similar California Voting Rights Act lawsuits against cities and school and special districts throughout Southern California in recent years.


Locally, he has represented plaintiffs in claims or lawsuits against the cities of Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the Coast Community College District.

Costa Mesa, Newport-Mesa and the college district have agreed to shift from at-large voting to district-based elections, in which voters in specified areas will elect one candidate from that area to represent them.

Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates said last year that his city was “ready, willing and able to fight any such lawsuit” from Shenkman and his firm.

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