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Two disqualified in Studio City council race to be seated after all

Two winning candidates who were accused of electioneering and nearly booted from the Studio City Neighborhood Council race are now slated to keep their newly won spots on the neighborhood board.

At a Monday meeting packed with dozens of people, a panel reversed its earlier decision to disqualify Eric Preven and Patrice Berlin, who had edged out their rivals in the April election.

The decision marks the latest turn in the saga over the Studio City council, a bitter fight that is all the more remarkable because of the scant power of the neighborhood group. L.A. has dozens of neighborhood councils that weigh in on local issues, affording them a platform for their views, but the groups cannot block city decisions.

Ejecting the two candidates would have ushered in two other people who got fewer votes — including incumbent Lisa Sarkin, who had earlier faced and defeated a recall attempt over a hotly contested development along Ventura Boulevard. Berlin and Preven were both outspoken critics of that project, which Sarkin had supported, and challenged her at the polls when her seat came up for grabs this year.

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The tug-of-war over the neighborhood elections centered on accusations that Berlin and Preven had loudly declared that they were candidates around the polls, repelling would-be voters from casting their ballots. The panel, which was drawn from other neighborhood councils, originally backed the complaint.

But the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees neighborhood councils, later decided to rehear the challenge after Preven and Berlin raised concerns that they were not specifically told that they could be disqualified, department head Grayce Liu wrote.

At Monday’s hearing, Berlin denied the accusations and said the city should never have allowed Stuart Miller to lodge his challenge, which she charged had been filed after the city deadline.

“I was elected by the stakeholders of Studio City. I’ve done nothing of the things I’ve been falsely accused of — not one,” Berlin said.

Preven, who did not attend Monday’s hearing, has also denied the accusations and argued the challenge shouldn’t have gone forward.

Miller, in turn, repeated his allegations, insisted his challenge was properly filed and called the new hearing a “rogue action” unsupported by city rules. He contended that the two candidates were responsible for reviewing city rules and knowing that they could be ousted.

The department should “carry out the findings of the panel, not undermine them,” Miller argued.

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More than a score of Studio City residents, stakeholders and others spoke up at the hearing, several giving sharply conflicting accounts of what had happened at the polls. Jay Handal, citywide elections administrator for the neighborhood council races, urged the panel to dismiss the claims.

After a brief discussion, the panel concluded that only one of the candidates — Preven — had engaged in electioneering by lingering at the polling place. Instead of ejecting Preven from the race, the panel voted 2 to 1 to give him a letter of reprimand.

Preven, reached for comment after the hearing, said he was dismayed by the finding but pleased he would eventually be able to take his seat. The election results still must be certified.

“This is about a group who had been in power for a very long time who were voted out — and they grasped for any vestige of hope,” he said.

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Sarkin, who would have been reelected if either one of the two candidates had been disqualified, said Monday night that she believes the Studio City election should be completely redone because of irregularities. Miller agreed, calling the process “deeply flawed.”

By holding the new hearing, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment “changed the rules,” Sarkin said. “Either they have rules or they don’t have rules.”

Handal said Monday that he saw no way for a new election to be held. Other challenges involving the Studio City race have already been dismissed, including one that raised concerns about online voting.

Follow @latimesemily for what’s happening at Los Angeles City Hall

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