Laguna Niguel’s transition to district elections bogged down by dispute over attorney fees

Laguna Niguel avoided a costly legal battle when the city decided to adopt district elections out of court.

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

But Michelle Jackson, a Dana Point attorney who threatened to sue if the city did not adopt the reform, says Laguna Niguel is avoiding a legal bill it shouldn’t: attorney fees.

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

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

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

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

“The stakes in these lawsuits are enormous,” City Attorney Scott Smith said of the district election legal battles. “In every case that has gone to trial, in this regard, the city ends up having to convert its system and has to pay the opposing party (and) their attorney fees.”

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

Council members heeded Smith’s recommendation and approved a resolution declaring the city’s intention to switch to district elections.

In compliance with the law, Laguna Niguel held two public hearings before drawing district maps and two hearings afterward. In January, council members finalized the transition and the new districts were scheduled to be drawn in the fall.

About a week later, Jackson asked Laguna Niguel for attorneys’ fees related to his work in drafting the demand letter.

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

Jackson’s lawsuit pointed to state election law, saying she is entitled to payment because the city did not move forward on district election reform until her demand letter.

He said the press release the city issued last summer after signaling its intention to reform its electoral system bears this out.

“While transitioning to a district-based election system was not an existing goal for the City,” the July 27, 2023 press release reads, “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 lawsuit was served on the city on June 19.

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

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