West Marin residents will soon have more reliable representation on the North Marin Water District board, after directors voted last week to replace their at-large seats with seats tied to geographic districts. Over the coming months, the board will draw the boundaries of five new districts within its service area that are meant to spread representation more equally among customers.
The move comes alongside a wave of changes on Novato public boards triggered by an accusation that the Novato City Council was violating the California’s Voting Rights Act of 2001, which seeks to reduce “racially polarized voting.”
On behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, attorney Kevin Shenkman sent a letter to the council in February that argued that its at-large elections are shutting out representation of the city’s Latino residents.
According to Mr. Shenkman, the state’s voting act disfavors at-large election methods, which serve to dilute the voting strength of minorities.
Although there has never been a Latino representative on the Novato City Council, 21 percent of Novato’s population of 51,904 was Latino in 2010, the year of the last census count. In the past 20 years, just one Latino candidate ran for the council; he lost in 2011.
The city is pushing back, denying the accusation of racially polarized voting but shifting to by-district elections effective June 10 nonetheless. The California cities that have fought Mr. Shenkman—who has brought similar claims against many districts statewide—have lost in multimillion-dollar settlements. Though Novato will avoid these heavier costs, per the state voting act, it will owe Mr. Shenkman compensation for his time.
The threat of such fees has prompted other agencies in Novato—including the school district, sanitary district and fire district—to consider changing their election methods. North Marin Water District has followed suit.
“We recognize that most of our customers fall within the city’s boundaries, and since the city is going through this process already, we decided it was time to stop and look at this also,” said Drew McIntyre, North Marin’s general manager.
The water district has consisted of at-large directors since it formed in 1948. The district expanded to provide service for Point Reyes Station, Bear Valley and Inverness Park in 1967; in the 1970s, it took over operation of the areas serviced by the Olema Water Company and the developer of the Paradise Ranch Estates on the Inverness ridge, and created the sewer system in Oceana Marin in Dillon Beach.
Today, the district serves a total of 783 meters throughout West Marin and around 20,500 meters in the Novato area. Sewer service to Oceana Marin includes an additional 229 connections.
Because the state’s voting rights act requires that districts be drawn around equal portions of the population, Mr. McIntyre said the district that includes West Marin will likely also include some of western Novato. There are an estimated 61,400 people living within North Marin’s Novato area, and around 2,000 throughout West Marin.
Currently, all five of North Marin’s board members live in Novato or its unincorporated areas. Olema resident Dennis Rodoni, who left the board in 2016 to fill his present role as District Four supervisor, was the last West Marin resident to serve on the board, after 20 years at the post. Rhonda Kutter, a Point Reyes Station resident, lost her bid to take over his seat and continue to represent the interests of West Marin residents. (She now serves as Supervisor Rodoni’s aide.)
The supervisor told the Light this week that he was supportive of having a West Marin representative on the board, though the change to by-district elections will likely not guarantee it.
“Someone who is more connected can help bring the community’s message to the whole board,” he said. “It is helpful to have representation particular to this particular cross section of residents, especially since it is so remote. In my 20 years, my focus was infrastructure, and the message from residents seemed to be strong support—they were willing to pay for better infrastructure.”
Some projects that commenced during Supervisor Rodoni’s tenure with the water district are still in the works, including a $775,000 effort to replace a water tank that burned in the Mount Vision fire, the construction of wells and a solids-handling facility, and upgrades to the Point Reyes Station treatment plant, which will together cost around $75,000. The construction of a $300,000 second well on the Gallagher Ranch, meant to curb the district’s use of old wells at its Coast Guard site, is also planned.
Three of North Marin’s board seats will come up for election in 2020, when the terms of Michael Joly, Jack Baker and Stephen Petterle end. Directors James Grossi and Rick Fraites will face elections in 2022.
North Marin Water District’s board of directors will discuss new district boundaries during the regular meetings of May 7, May 21, May 28, June 4, June 11, June 18, July 9 and July 16. Meetings start at 6 p.m. at district headquarters (999 Rush Creek Place), in Novato. All materials will be available at nmwd.com.