About two-thirds of the state’s special districts (35%) are independent districts. Independent districts have their own separate boards of directors elected by the districts' own voters. Independent districts also include districts where the appointed boards of directors serve for fixed terms. The cemetery districts are independent districts with this governance structure. Special districts’ governing boards can vary with the size and nature of the district. Most districts have five- member governing boards. Other governing boards vary from three to 11 members. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has 37 board members, is unique.
Dependent districts (65%) are governed by other, existing legislative bodies (either a city council or a county board of supervisors). All County Service Areas, for example, are dependent districts because their county boards of supervisors govern them. The Yucca Valley Recreation and Park District is governed by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, making it a dependent district. The Oceanside Small Craft Harbor District is another dependent district that is run by the Oceanside City Council. A community's registered voters usually choose an independent district’s board of directors. But in some water districts, political power rests with the local landowners. Where the districts' services primarily benefit landowners' land and not people, the courts have upheld the use of these landowner-voter districts. Larger independent districts often have a professional manager, similar to a city manager or a county administrator, to assist the board members. The governing boards adopt broad policies that the general managers carry out. Different types of independent special districts include library districts, resource conservation districts, and memorial districts.
These three distinctions about special districts are certainly not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have an independent, multifunction, enterprise special district, such as the Whispering Palms Community Service District in San Diego County. The District is independent because it the local voters elect their own board of directors; it’s multifunction because the District provides sewers, street lighting, and road maintenance; and it’s enterprise because local officials charge their customers for the sewer services. Conversely, County Service Area # 19 in Marin County is a dependent, single function, non-enterprise district. The CSA is dependent because the Marin County Board of Supervisors governs it; it’s single function because it delivers only one service; and it’s non-enterprise because that sole service is fire protection.
Who has the right to Vote?
The issue of landowner-voter districts was called into question in the US Supreme Court case, Salyer Land Company v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District (1972).
The plaintiffs were landowners and resident registered voters within the District who claimed that it was unconstitutional for the District to restrict voting rights to landowners only. Further, they argued that it was inequitable that smaller landowners received fewer votes than larger landowners.
The plaintiffs urged the creation of a new policy so that all residents in the District would be permitted only one vote regardless of land ownership. The defendant District argued that its services benefited the land only. Thus, any effects on non-landowner residents were indirect and did not entitle them to vote. Also, the number of votes allotted to landowners was proportional to the assessed value of the land, and therefore relative to the benefits and burdens to each landowner.
The US Supreme Court agreed with the defendant and upheld landowner-voting because the District provides no service to the general public.”