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Studio City neighborhood election roiled by electioneering accusations

A slugfest over seats on the Studio City Neighborhood Council could result in two candidates being disqualified amid reports of electioneering. Ventura Boulevard is one of the area's main thoroughfares.

A slugfest over seats on the Studio City Neighborhood Council could result in two candidates being disqualified amid reports of electioneering. Ventura Boulevard is one of the area’s main thoroughfares.

(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

It is a job with scant power and no paycheck.

Yet in Studio City, the question of who will win spots on its neighborhood council has become a bitter slugfest, a political drama that has gone all the way to the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.

Two candidates who edged out their rivals for spots on the San Fernando Valley neighborhood group are poised to be booted from the race over accusations of electioneering.

The rare decision would upend the election, replacing winners Patrice Berlin and Eric Preven with two other candidates who got fewer votes — including an incumbent they had sharply criticized.

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The furor follows a tumultuous year for the Studio City Neighborhood Council: Heated debate over Sportsmen’s Landing, a planned riverfront development with upscale shops and restaurants, spurred a push to recall board member Lisa Sarkin last year.

Sarkin, who had backed the development, easily survived that attempt to eject her from the neighborhood council. But she faced a fresh challenge this spring at the ballot box, as neighborhood council seats went up for grabs.

Sarkin ran for one of two seats allocated for Studio City employees or independent contractors and came in third behind Berlin and Preven, outspoken critics of the Sportsmen’s Landing project.

But several voters lodged challenges over the election, including Stuart Miller, who accused Berlin and Preven of electioneering at the polls.

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At a recent hearing, a panel of three people drawn from other Los Angeles neighborhood councils backed his accusations and voted 2 to 1 to disqualify Berlin and Preven.

That means their seats would go to the next-highest vote-getters, Sarkin and writer Keith Schwalenberg. In the race for those seats. Berlin and Preven got 65 and 61 votes, respectively, while Sarkin received 52 and Schwalenberg had 15, according to totals posted on the neighborhood council elections website.

Berlin said she had been told the decision was final. However, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees neighborhood councils, has referred the matter to City Atty. Mike Feuer to review, said Jay Handal, citywide elections administrator for the neighborhood council races.

Department General Manager Grayce Liu did not respond to email and phone messages Tuesday seeking comment on whether the decision to disqualify the two candidates was still open.

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Handal said that although challenges are common in neighborhood council elections, especially if there are “hot button issues or hot button people,” it is very rare for a candidate to be disqualified as a result.

Los Angeles has scores of neighborhood councils that weigh in on local issues. They have no power to block city decisions but can exert their influence by publicly backing or opposing local plans. Each group also received $42,000 this year to support their activities, Handal said.

Depending on who runs them, the neighborhood councils can become either a reliable source of support for City Council members or “a hotbed of dissent,” political consultant Dermot Givens said.

Los Angeles leaders created them “as the way for more community input,” Givens said. “But they gave them no power — purposely.”

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Schwalenberg, who had not heard about the election challenge until being contacted by The Times, said he had been surprised by the intense back-and-forth over the Studio City race, including at a “pretty small” neighborhood forum. Fewer than 400 people voted in the election, according to the online totals.

“It has had a lot of drama,” Schwalenberg said.

Both Miller and Sarkin declined to be interviewed, saying it was too early to discuss the issue because the Studio City election results had not yet been certified. Other challenges involving the Studio City race are still pending, according to the department elections website.

To back up his challenge, Miller supplied statements from three witnesses, two of whom said the candidates were “loudly declaring their status as candidates both before and after they voted.”

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As a result, Miller wrote, “it appeared that several stakeholders waiting in line to vote became disgusted or intimidated by the outbursts and left the building without voting.”

Berlin and Preven have denied the accusations, but neither attended a city hearing on the complaint this month. At that hearing, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment said the challenge should be dismissed, Handal said. But the panel disagreed and voted to disqualify Berlin and Preven.

Afterward, Berlin wrote in an email to city officials that no one had personally directed her to show up, and “we knew we had done nothing wrong.”

“We were not electioneering at all,” Preven said.

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Preven argued that the challenge should never have been allowed because the accusation and witness statements came in after a city deadline. In emails responding to Preven, Miller has denied that his challenge was late.

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


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