Acting on complaints that his office has received over the last several months, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is recommending that the City Council amend or revise the definition of the factual basis stakeholder for the 2012 neighborhood council elections.
In a report issued last month to the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), Trutanich suggested three changes to elections for the 92 neighborhood council elections two years from now: establishing voter preregistration; clarifying the term “factual basis stakeholder;” and requiring proof of stakeholder status instead of granting voting privileges based on the voter’s self-affirmation that they have a “stake” in the community in which they are voting.
DONE is the city department that supervises the advisory neighborhood councils.
“The definition should provide clarification in order to facilitate an objective determination on a person’s eligibility to vote,” the city attorney wrote. “The term ‘stakeholder’ implies an ongoing and significant interest in a community.
“Accordingly, the definition should provide criteria upon which to demonstrate a nexus with the neighborhood in order to ensure that a voter’s stake in the neighborhood is not merely incidental, but ongoing and continuous.”
Trutanich’s report, which was signed by Deputy City Attorney William Carter, comes after a series of Argonaut articles on outside voters and their potential to affect the outcomes of local elections. The city attorney told DONE Oct. 29 that his office had received grievances regarding factual basis voters in the April elections, where 16.9 percent of ballots cast were voters who “affirmed” that they have an interest in a particular community without residing there.
The City Council passed an ordinance in 2008 that allowed anyone who does not live, own property or work in a certain neighborhood – the original requirements for voting – the ability to vote in a neighborhood council election, providing they can stake a “claim” to having an interest in the community.
Many neighborhood councils, including those in Venice, Mar Vista and Westchester-Playa, chafed at the new law but resolved it by designating one or more seats for board members who do not fit the original criteria. Others have not, and some believe that it can lead to the possibility of outside interests taking over some local councils.
The Venice Neighborhood Council was concerned about a possible takeover of its board and thus created a special seat for the affirmation stakeholder.
“This way, there is one seat on our board for this type of voter and we don’t have to worry so much about an outside group trying to take over our council,” Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks told The Argonaut.
The Mar Vista Community Council and the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa have also designated one seat each on their boards. The Del Rey Neighborhood Council has no factual or affirmation stakeholder seats.
The neighborhood council system was created in 1999 to afford residents and property owners the ability to participate in what many call democracy at a grassroots level by allowing locally elected community members to make recommendations on issues important to them. The 2008 effort to include voters who simply “affirm a “stake” in a community was done to increase neighborhood participation.
Officials in Trutanich’s office point to a Sept. 20 report by the city clerk to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) that indicates some local councils reported as high as 50 percent of the ballots cast in the April election were by factual basis voters. While these cases were by no means the exception, the city attorney deemed it necessary to weigh in on the possibility of neighborhood council elections becoming susceptible to outside special interests.
“Some of the concerns expressed to our office from neighborhood councils with a high percentage of factual basis voters participating in the elections were that the outcomes of the elections were being unfairly manipulated by stakeholders with a negligible connection to the neighborhood,” the report states. “In order to further legitimize the neighborhood council system, it is important to strengthen the electoral process and eliminate any unfairness, or even the perception thereof.”
The Argonaut reported Dec. 9 that in the April election, the Del Rey council had 89 factual basis voters out of 411 ballots cast, a percentage of 21.7, according to city clerk documents. By comparison, Westchester-Playa’s percentage was .05 for its 436 voters, Mar Vista’s was 0.2 of 577 ballots cast and Venice, which had 1,178 voters, was at 1.5 percent.
Del Rey’s election was challenged by Stephen Knight, one of the founders of the council and its former parliamentarian. Allegations included voter fraud and irregularities tied to factual basis stakeholder voting and voter disenfranchisement, among other things. The city clerk dismissed the challenges and declared that no evidence of voter fraud was found.
The city attorney’s office found that in councils that permit factual basis voters to participate in elections by only “affirming” a stake in the neighborhood, like Del Rey, higher instances of allegations of improprieties were reported.
“In those neighborhoods where no documentary evidence was provided, the city clerk’s office received a greater number of complaints alleging voting ineligibility and irregularities,” Trutanich noted. “However, due to lack of documentation, the city clerk was unable to process such challenges.”
City Clerk June Lagmay and Senior Projects Coordinator Isaias Cantú presented a report last month to BONC of her office’s findings on the recent election process. Feedback taken from neighborhood council leaders and her office indicated concerns about electioneering, the factual basis stakeholder and the election challenge process.
“Stakeholders wanted access to the meetings and challengers wanted the ability to provide testimony,” Lagmay’s findings state. “This issue should be revisited according to the feedback from the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners and discussed with neighborhood councils should the city clerk be asked to implement the 2012 neighborhood council elections.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Westchester-Playa, Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey, has publicly stated that he prefers the same requirements for voters in neighborhood councils that exist for City Council races – residents only. “The (factual basis stakeholder definition) is too vague and too loose,” he said.
Mar Vista Community Council First Vice President Sharon Commins prefers the original definition of a stakeholder.
“I personally believe the sole appropriate definition for voting in neighborhood council elections should be live, work or own property,” said Commins, who spoke as a Mar Vista resident, not as a community council member. “These three items can be validated clearly.”
Mark Redick, a past president of the Del Rey council, at one time fully supported the original idea of live, work or property ownership as justifiable qualifications for neighborhood council elections. But this year’s election challenge, along with the recent revelation of the higher percentage of outside voters in Del Rey, have led him to have a change of heart and he now shares Rosendahl’s view on who should be able to vote.
“Neighborhood councils have increased dramatically in community stature in the last few years and now that the city clerk runs the elections, it makes sense to align with how they run the municipal elections,” Redick said. “Based on what transpired in the April elections, I now believe that only those who live in the community should be eligible to vote in neighborhood council elections.
“I do not think that we should have someone from Torrance, the San Fernando Valley or Berkley that have been contacted through social media voting in Del Rey, and then coming in to sit on the board to decide neighborhood allocations,” Redick added.
Enrique Fernandez, a current board member of the Del Rey council, expressed a view that the city attorney has heard during his office’s discussions on factual basis voting.
“I think it opens up (neighborhood councils) to outsiders instead of just community stakeholders,” Fernandez said. “In our election, there were a lot of outsiders that came in to vote specifically for certain individuals and I don’t think that was what the City Council wanted.”
Lucks, a BONC commissioner, said each council should take a definite position on how they will incorporate the factual basis voter onto their respective boards. But the City Council would be the body that could ultimately decide to clarify or redefine who may vote in local elections, she said.
DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim says there are measures local councils can take to fend off possible takeovers from special interests.
“Based on my discussions with neighborhood councils, if there is a fear of a takeover, there can be safeguards that they can put in their bylaws,” Kim explained, noting that councils such as Venice, Westchester-Playa and Mar Vista have designated seats on their boards for outside voters.
Factual basis voters can not vote for anyone except the factual basis candidate in an election where a local council has the board seat, Kim said.
Based on the number of complaints in areas that do not ask for documentation, Trutanich suggested that all councils should consider a system that would guard against ineligible voters.
“We recommend that neighborhood councils be expressly advised that electing a ‘self-affirmation’ process will significantly curtail the ability to evaluate voter challenges due to the absence of documentary proof,” the report recommends.
Commins has strong feelings about voters who cast ballots in a local election with tenuous ties to a neighborhood in which they claim to have a stake.
“The ‘factual’ basis definition is complete nonsense, invites election mischief, and it should be eliminated altogether,” she asserted.