Manhattan Beach : Letter Prompts Resolution

The City Council agreed this week to draft a resolution asking the state to change its laws to restrict the use of absentee ballots.

The move came after Councilmen Russell Lesser and Jim Walker, neither of whom is seeking reelection in April, lambasted Mayor Gil Archuletta and Mayor Pro Tem Jan Dennis for a campaign letter they wrote in support of candidate Bruce Ponder.

The letter from Archuletta and Dennis, who are not up for reelection, was sent to voters throughout the city and included two absentee voter applications. Lesser and Walker said the letter, paid for by the Committee to Elect Bruce Ponder, was deceptive and implied official city support for Ponder.

"This election is just too important to forget about," the letter said. "That's why we're enclosing two convenient vote-at-home ballot applications. Just fill out an application, sign your name, place a stamp on it and drop it in the mail. Our city clerk will mail your ballot to you so you may vote in the privacy of your home."

Walker said Archuletta and Dennis were attempting to represent themselves to the voters as "an agent of the election process" and said the letter was a "dishonor and disservice to the office of mayor and mayor pro-tem."

Walker asked his fellow council members to remove both Archuletta and Dennis from their largely ceremonial council leadership posts so that the two could not use the mayor and mayor pro-tem titles on any other campaign literature. Lesser, however, said the council has a tradition of keeping the two posts, which are rotated among the council members, out of political battles.

"It is a question of personal ethics," Walker said. "It is legal, but it is deceptive."

Archuletta and Dennis defended the letter, saying that it was not written on city stationery and that it included a disclaimer. Printed on the bottom right corner were the words: "Not printed at city expense. Committee to Elect Bruce Ponder."

"Any time we try to throttle greater participation in city government, then something is substantially wrong," Archuletta said to Walker. "You are afraid to have more people vote. . . . You are upset just because you didn't think of it, Jim."

Archuletta and Dennis, who form a minority faction on the five-member council, said they obtained approval from City Atty. Carl K. Newton before mailing the letter. Archuletta emphasized that the letter is legal.

In a prepared statement, Ponder said the attack by Lesser and Walker was a "blatant attempt to politicize our local voting process" and to discredit his campaign.

"People in all parts of our city have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to vote by mail," Ponder said. "There are many reasons why people cannot get to the polls on Election Day, but everyone should be given the opportunity to participate in our municipal elections."

City Clerk John Allan Lacey said he has received 450 applications for absent voter applications so far this year, compared to 310 for the last council election two years ago. Voters have until April 1 to submit applications.

Lesser said efforts like that by Archuletta and Dennis show that the absentee voter process is being abused. He asked the council to support the writing of state legislation that would restrict the use of absent voter ballots to emergency cases, such as being out of town or physically disabled. The council voted unanimously to direct city staff to prepare a resolution.

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