Six weeks after voters narrowly rejected a proposed 250-room beachfront hotel in a fractious special election, the campaign is on again--this time in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Hotel proponent Michael Escalante, acting on behalf of developer Joe Langlois, has filed a "notice of an election contest" in Superior Court challenging the election results. The proposed $31-million hotel, which would be built on the Strand between 13th and 15th streets, lost by two votes out of more than 4,800 ballots cast.
City officials were served notice of the court action Wednesday, and a motion to allow hotel proponents to examine election documents is expected to be filed in court today. A hearing has been set for Aug. 7.
John Thornton, an attorney representing the developers, said the notice of an election contest asks for a court-supervised recount of the ballots, several dozen of which proponents believe were not handled correctly by City Clerk Kathleen Reviczky. He said Escalante filed the notice because Langlois is not a resident of Hermosa Beach.
Reviczky, meanwhile, has become the focus of another controversy involving the election, this time regarding her decision last week to remove nearly 800 absentee ballots from the vault at City Hall.
Reviczky placed the absentee ballots, including 15 unopened ballots that she has declined to count, in a safe-deposit box at the Bank of America in Redondo Beach. Reviczky shares the city vault with the Finance Department.
The unannounced move raised eyebrows at City Hall and prompted City Manager Gregory Meyer to issue a memorandum blasting Reviczky for implying that the ballots were not safe at City Hall.
"I am appalled at this," Meyer wrote. "Both the inference that finance employees are not trustworthy and secondly that the (vault) itself is not proper."
Meyer wrote further that removal of public records from City Hall "could be a felony offense"--a statement that shocked Reviczky and prompted her to return the documents to City Hall on Tuesday after having a padlock attached to her file cabinet in the vault.
Unaware that she had already returned the ballots to the City Hall vault, both City Atty. James Lough and the City Council joined Meyer Tuesday night in urging Reviczky to return the ballots to the vault. The City Council also voted to reserve the right not to reimburse Reviczky for the $62 fee she paid to rent the safe-deposit box.
When asked by Mayor Jack Wood if removal of the ballots was a "grave matter," Lough said it was, adding that Reviczky could face a four-year prison term if found guilty of illegally removing the ballots from City Hall.
He cited Section 6200 of the California Code, which among other things prohibits removal of public records from a city hall. No charges have been filed, however.
Reviczky acknowledged Wednesday that her decision to remove the absentee ballots was "an act of poor judgment," but said she never intended to cast aspersions on other city employees. She issued a written apology to Meyer and members of the Finance Department.
To Avoid Criticism
"I always thought the ballots were safe at City Hall, but I was getting criticism that they were not under my direct control because they were not under one key," Reviczky said. "I did not want it named in a lawsuit that there was inadequate security and that I had done nothing to increase security.
"Usually ballots aren't worth so much. Those ballots are worth $30 million."
Reviczky said Meyer, in a second memo, asked her to notify the district attorney's office of the incident because "a cloud exists because of this controversy." Reviczky declined the request Wednesday after consulting with her personal attorney, she said.
"My attorney said that there was absolutely no blameworthy intent on my behalf on the action I took," she said. "The sole purpose of my acts was to protect the integrity of the system."
Meeting on Security
Reviczky said that she will meet next Wednesday with Meyer and several other city employees to discuss ways to increase security in the vault. Among the suggestions to be discussed is a proposal to keep a formal daily log of employees who go in and out of the vault, she said.
Reviczky has said that her relationship with numerous city officials, including several council members, has been strained by the controversy over the hotel, which most city officials favor. She has not taken a public stand on the issue.
In the court action filed last week, two disputed absentee ballots that were marked "yes" with a pen are among those being challenged by hotel proponents. During a recount of ballots June 27, Reviczky overruled a board of recount officials and declined to count the two ballots, saying county election rules forbid her from accepting ballots that have not been properly punched. Hotel proponents have argued that the pen markings represent the "clear intent" of the voter and should be counted.
Thornton said the developers are also contesting Reviczky's decision to count a "no" ballot that was correctly punched but bore a piece of cellophane tape directly behind the "yes" punch hole. In addition, the hotel proponents charge that Reviczky should have counted the 13 unopened absentee ballots that Thornton said arrived at the Hermosa Beach Post Office before to Election Day, but were not delivered to City Hall on time.
The developers are also asking the court to disqualify six ballots that had been punched twice as well as an unknown number of absentee ballots that hotel proponents say were hand-delivered to polling sites by "a third party," Thornton said.
The City Council voted Tuesday night to allow Reviczky to hire an attorney to represent her in the action because Lough is already involved in a separate lawsuit involving the election and could have a conflict of interest in the new case.