By Gary Walker
To many neighborhood council leaders in Los Angeles, the “factual basis voter” has become a pejorative synonymous with fraud and a direct attack on local grassroots democracy. To others it is exactly what city leaders had in mind when they created the neighborhood council system during a revamp of the city charter a dozen years ago.
If an Eastside city councilman has his way, the factual basis stakeholder will soon be a thing of the past.
Councilman José Huizar is proposing to eliminate the definition of the factual basis voter and create what he calls a “community interest stakeholder,” which would be defined as “a person who affirms a substantial and ongoing participation within the neighborhood council boundaries and who may be in a community organization such as, but not limited to, educational, non-profit and/or religious.”
Currently, those who are eligible to vote in neighborhood council elections include anyone who lives, works or owns property in a particular community.
In an effort to have greater participation, the City Council created the factual basis voter, where a person could “affirm” a stake in a neighborhood under a variety of what detractors of these voters say are auspicious reasons – shopping in a neighborhood on election day and presenting a receipt from a local store after a purchase – and subsequently cast a ballot in an election.
Some councils have these voters sign an affidavit stating that they have an ongoing connection to the neighborhood where they seek to vote, and still others require additional proof in order to prevent fraudulent votes.
Huizar’s proposal stems from an incident in last year’s Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council elections in which police were summoned to Eagle Rock City Hall, where the voting took place. Several groups from outside of the city that were affiliated with medicinal marijuana collectives came to the polling place and demanded to vote as factual basis stakeholders, according to West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Chair Jay Handal, who was running the election.
According to Handal, several voters asked him for a receipt instead of a voting sticker after casting their ballots. When questioned, they told him they needed the receipt in order to redeem it for $40 worth of marijuana at a dispensary, providing that they voted for a particular slate of candidates.
Huizar, whose council district includes Eagle Rock, was notified that approximately 46 percent of the tabulated votes came from ballots cast by people who did not work or reside in Eagle Rock.
He then sent a letter to his council colleagues asking them to take action on the factual basis voter and it struck a far different tone than his July 3 motion.
“On Saturday, Oct. 13, the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council conducted its elections where 313 of the 792 votes cast were from those claiming to be ‘factual basis stakeholders,’ who are reported to have little or no relationship with the Eagle Rock community,” the councilman wrote.
“This was clearly an attempt by outside interests to take control of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council and constitutes an abuse of the neighborhood council electoral process.
“The current definition has been problematic for some time and given the recent electoral challenges at the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, it is timely that the issue of ‘factual basis stakeholder’ be reexamined in a comprehensive manner by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, with the assistance of the city attorney, and with input from the neighborhood councils.”
The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, a subset of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the city agency that supervises neighborhood councils, established three committees that reviewed the definition of the factual basis voter and helped to craft new recommendations that are part of Huizar’s motion, which was submitted to the council’s Education and Neighborhoods Committee.
One recommendation includes a new ordinance that would extend neighborhood council membership to those “who declare a stake in the neighborhood as a community interest stakeholder and affirm a substantial and ongoing participation within the neighborhood council boundaries and who may be in a community organization such as, but not limited to, educational, non-profit, and/or religious.”
The ordinance would also allow neighborhood councils to eliminate the provision that they provide a board seat specifically for community interest stakeholders, as long as there is an at-large position for which all stakeholders could vote and run for.
“The motion is still a work in progress that the commission is working on,” said BONC Commissioner Linda Lucks, who is also the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council. “I like the direction we are moving in and am confident it will end well.”
With few exceptions, Westside neighborhood leaders have decried the factual basis stakeholder rule and many have openly complained that the City Council has unfairly saddled them with a burden that has opened up the potential for fraud in local elections.
Board members in Venice, Mar Vista and West Los Angeles have privately and publicly spoken about attempts to take over their councils by outside forces or have claimed to witness open invitations to voters in their elections to subsequently go and cast a ballot in another neighborhood election.
Del Rey Neighborhood President Eric DeSobe seemed to approve of some of the recommendations regarding factual basis stakeholders.
“I’m very encouraged that individual neighborhood councils will get to decide how inclusive or exclusive they will be regarding their candidates and potential voters,” he said.
The Del Rey election of 2010 was a flashpoint of controversy, with allegations of voter fraud and the revelation that nearly 22 percent of ballots cast were from factual basis voters. The city average that year was 16 percent.
Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa Vice President Mark Redick said he applauds Huizar for attempting to clarify the definition but remains opposed to factual basis voting.
“Factual basis is factual fraud and has been used to bastardize the neighborhood council electoral process,” Redick stated.
DeSobe, who was first elected in 2010, said Del Rey has been working on how its council will address factual basis voting.
“We’ve started these discussions in our council and will take the issue up again later this fall,” he said.
Redick, a former president and co-founder of the Del Rey board, disagrees.
“Eric DeSobe is the poster boy for factual basis voting,” he asserted. “(Factual basis) is not making neighborhood councils more inclusive; it’s making them more suspect.”
Lucks commended those who have been working on reclassifying the controversial voter definition.
“I have been very impressed by the hard work by neighborhood council activists and staff on flushing out the issues and I’m confident that Councilman Huizar’s motion will reflect the intent of the plan for neighborhood councils to be more inclusive while finding a fair way to protect neighborhood councils from takeovers,” she said.
Another recommendation would allow each local board to determine the number of board seats that will be allocated to community interest stakeholders.
Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents District 11, said he is still reviewing Huizar’s motion.
Motion redefining ‘factual basis’ voter presented to L.A. council committee
By Gary Walker