HERMOSA BEACH — Opponents of a proposed 250-room beachfront hotel doubled their margin of victory from one vote to two during a recount last week, but the final tally of the special election will probably be decided in court because of at least three disputed absentee ballots.
The recount, held all day Thursday at City Hall, resulted in 2,398 votes for the development--one more than the tally certified after the election--and 2,400 votes against it--two more than the previous results.
The additional votes came from a group of seven ballots that the electronic tabulation machine had rejected on election night. Four of those ballots were also rejected during the recount, which was performed by hand.
About two dozen ballots were challenged by one side or the other during the recount, and three of them have become the focus of attention in its aftermath.
City Clerk Kathleen Reviczky, overruling a board of four recount officials appointed by her, rejected two absentee ballots that were marked "yes" with a pen. The board voted to count the two ballots, but Reviczky later threw them out, saying county election rules preclude her from accepting ballots that have not been properly punched.
A third absentee ballot, bearing a "no" vote, was accepted by the board and Reviczky over the objection of hotel proponents. Although the ballot was correctly punched, a piece of cellophane tape was attached to the back of it--directly behind the "yes" punch hole.
Peter A. Bagatelos, a San Francisco attorney who represented the hotel proponents at the recount, argued that the ballot should be disqualified because the person may have punched both holes--known as "chads"--and "we don't know who put the tape there." Bagatelos said the "yes" chad may have been punched but taped back in place.
No Decision on Appeal
Bagatelos and his client, developer Joe Langlois, said after the recount that they had not yet decided whether they would appeal Reviczky's rulings on the three absentee ballots to a Superior Court judge. Langlois, who spent an estimated $50,000 campaigning for the disputed hotel as well as $22,000 to pay for the special election, said during the recount that he would go to court if he thought it would make a difference.
"There are some areas that can be investigated and pursued," Bagatelos said after the recount. "I don't understand the clerk's rationale on the two ballots that the board chose to accept. There are two votes right there."
Under state law, an initiative must pass by a majority, meaning proponents of the hotel would need to pick up three votes in court in order to win. A tie would not be sufficient to pass the measure.
Opponents of the hotel, led by attorney Sheila Donahue Miller, said that while they expect to end up in court over the results, they are confident the two-vote margin will prevail.
"It is a possibility that the two penned-in ballots might qualify, but it would then only be a tie," Miller said after the recount.
Kathy Bergstrom, an opponent of the project who watched the entire nine-hour recount, said foes of the hotel are claiming unqualified victory. "Even with all this adversity, we have won again," she said. "The only thing that is different is that no one expected us to pick up one vote--not even us."
Etta Simpson, a supporter of the hotel who also sat through the entire recount, described the results as a "heartbreaker" for proponents of the project. "I think a lot people would have voted if they knew it would come down to this," she said. Simpson said the recount was performed professionally, describing it as "objective" and lacking "animosity" or "ill feeling."
Aside from the challenged ballots, several other issues may be pursued by the developers, Greenwood & Langlois. Bagatelos was denied a request to open 13 absentee ballots that arrived at City Hall after the June 11 election day.
Bagatelos was also concerned about an absentee ballot that Reviczky rejected because of a discrepancy in the voter's signature. The ballot was not opened.
Reviczky said the signature on the absentee ballot looked "significantly different" from one kept by the county registrar in downtown Los Angeles. Reviczky said that she had rejected an absentee ballot submitted by the same voter in a special election last December because of the signature problem.
Reviczky, who said she was under a lot of pressure and emotional duress because of the closeness of the results, said after the recount that she was glad the election was now out of her hands.
"It's over for me," she said. "It is up to a judge now."