A top Los Angeles city official has joined the debate over whether a controversial voting rule that allows non-residents to cast ballots in neighborhood council races can affect the outcome of local elections.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich Oct. 29 asked commissioners with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which supervises the 91 advisory neighborhood councils, to create a more refined definition of what is called the “factual basis stakeholder.”
The city attorney said his office has received many complaints about people who do not live in a particular neighborhood but claim to have a “stake” in what happens in that community who voted in the April local council elections.
According to Trutanich, at least 16 percent of votes cast in the recent neighborhood council elections were factual basis voters.
The definition of the factual basis stakeholder, also known as the “affirmation” voter seat, was created in 2008 by the Los Angeles City Council. These potential voters are not required to live, work or own property in the area where they wish to vote. As long as they can “affirm” an interest in a particular neighborhood council, the voters are permitted to cast ballots in that local board’s elections.
DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim said his office has also received complaints regarding the factual basis seat since it was approved two years ago.
“It’s been an ongoing issue with some of the local boards,” he explained. “BONC (the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners) has looked into this and we haven’t really found unanimous consensus one way or the other.”
Westside neighborhood councils have reluctantly added the factual basis seat but are largely unhappy with the council’s decision.
“(The definition) is so broad and so confusing,” Nora Maclellan, a member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, said recently. “I appreciate other people’s interest in our community, but I don’t know why (the affirmation stakeholder) has been forced upon us.”
Recently, a local neighborhood council sought to test the boundaries of what local boards can do regarding an expansion of the outside voter guidelines.
Brett Flater, treasurer of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, proposed a motion Oct. 14 that sought to give the local council the ability to determine who can take part in the advisory board’s elections.
“It’s a resolution that promotes our desire for citizen participation, to define for ourselves who a stakeholder is, and oppose anyone imposing on us a mandated removal of the factual basis definition,” the treasurer explained to his board members.
The Del Rey resolution sought to oppose what was referred to as any “top-down mandated, arbitrary number of seats that factual basis stakeholders may vote for and/or run for.” In addition, the resolution listed its opposition to DONE’s “imposing restrictions on stakeholder definitions.”
Jay Handal, the chair of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, said neighborhood councils were asked to give their opinions on DONE’s Web site regarding their feelings on keeping or modifying the factual basis definition.
“Overwhelmingly, the need to change the definition of factual basis is there for citywide neighborhood councils,” Handal told the Del Rey board.
Del Rey, which ultimately decided to postpone voting to expand the number of factual basis seats, would not have been able to do so without permission from BONC, Kim said.
“BONC has the final decision on whether a board can change its bylaws,” DONE’s general manager told The Argonaut.
Mark Redick, a former president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, views the factual basis stakeholder as an invitation to controversy and potentially tainted elections.
“The concept of the factual basis stakeholder is flawed,” said Redick. “And flawed leads to fraud.”
Both West Los Angeles and Mar Vista councils have had past incidents where churches in their communities sought to place members of their congregations who did not live in the neighborhood on the local boards to promote the organization’s – and not necessarily the neighborhood’s – goals.
Handal advised the Del Rey board to be careful before taking any action on the factual basis definition in light of the fact that the Los Angeles City Council could consider revamping the rules regarding who can vote in local elections next year.
“I would urge you to take a good, hard look at what you’re voting on tonight,” he cautioned the board at the meeting. “(The possibility of outside interests gaining seats on a local board) is definitely there when you have all seats open to anybody voting for anything.”
Some were surprised that Del Rey would seek to expand its number of affirmation voters without approval from DONE, and while also on the heels of an election in April that resulted in three incumbents losing their seats. The election also faced a challenge that included charges of outsiders being invited to vote.
Stephen Knight, who like Redick is one of the founding members of the Del Rey local council, filed seven grievances with the city clerk, including allegations of non-residents voting in the Del Rey election. In Mar Vista Gardens, dozens of residents were unable to vote because election officials ran out of ballots.
“Without any Area G ballots, the stakeholders from that area could not vote for any office. Many Area G stakeholders returned home without voting at all and expressed a feeling of disenfranchisement,” Knight wrote in his election dispute charge. “This error should not have happened and amounts to a denial of civil rights.”
The city clerk’s office, which conducted the elections for the first time this year, dismissed all of the challenges, a source of lingering controversy in some quarters of the community. The city clerk confirmed that the polling location ran out of ballots, but decided not to uphold Knight’s complaint.
“After investigating the matter, (our office) compiled a report and issued a recommendation stating that the challenge should be dismissed,” Areleen Taylor, chief of the city clerk’s election division, wrote to the Del Rey council in June.
“Corrective action was taken on election day by delivering the additional Area G ballots in a timely manner and providing accommodations for the two voters who had been unable to wait for the ballots to arrive,” Taylor continued. “This administrative solution ultimately allowed one of the two voters to be able to cast their vote on election day.”
Redick, who was present at Mar Vista Gardens when the local council election took place, said the percentage of factual basis stakeholder votes is important, but he feels there is a larger principle involved.
“Whether it’s 1 percent or 21 percent, it’s inappropriate,” Redick, who did not run for reelection, asserted. “This is a neighborhood council, not a drive-by council. The residents of Mar Vista Gardens, whom the past board worked very hard to encourage to be a part of our community, were disenfranchised.
“(The factual basis voter) has become the equivalent of the bastardization of neighborhood councils,” Redick added. “And as a founding member of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, that greatly disturbs me.”
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks, who is also a member of BONC, said the commissioners are looking at options that can accommodate affirmation stakeholders while making the local boards feel safe from takeovers by outside groups.
“Another option would be asking the City Council to revisit the issue,” Lucks said. “They could make it more clear and less vague or they could decide to not allow it at all.”
Maclellan noted that voters in neighborhood council elections face more scrutiny than those who vote in a midterm or presidential election.
“I think it’s funny that a higher degree of proof that you are eligible to vote in a neighborhood council election is required than when you vote in a national election,” she said.
Voters who live or work in the communities where they vote are required to bring evidence that they live or are employed in that neighborhood, and in some councils, like Del Rey’s, a factual basis stakeholder is not asked to display a local tie to the community, according to its bylaws.
If Redick had his way, the controversial voting provision would soon become extinct. “If you stop factual basis (voting), you’ll stop voter fraud,” he said.