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'Hermosa Hotel'--A Court Drama : Hearing on Election Recount Resembles a Soap Opera as It Intrudes on Voters' Private Lives

September 08, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

It was a nasty day in court last week in downtown Los Angeles.

A Hermosa Beach woman was ordered to reveal how often she sleeps at her boyfriend's house. The woman, a hairdresser, acquiesced, peering incredulously at Superior Court Judge Philip M. Saeta.

Hermosa Beach Councilman Tony DeBellis, who lives with his girlfriend, was summoned from his sickbed to explain why his girlfriend was properly registered to vote in the special election over a beachfront hotel and he was not. DeBellis agreed to show up in court only after Saeta issued a court order for his appearance.

And Margaret Davey, a Hermosa Beach woman who works for Hughes Aircraft Co. in Torrance, was required to testify how she voted in the disputed election last June. An angry Davey disclosed the information against her will, testifying that she never would have voted if she had known her vote would be scrutinized in court.

It was the latest round in the battle of the hotel, a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court that could determine the fate of a proposed $31-million beachfront hotel on the Strand in Hermosa Beach. Voters rejected the proposed hotel by a two-vote margin in June, but hotel proponents have challenged the results, saying that more than a dozen ballots were incorrectly handled by City Clerk Kathleen Reviczky.

Countless Details Debated

The court hearing, which will resume Sept. 16, picked up Wednesday where the highly emotional election battle left off in June. Opponents and proponents of the project debated countless details about individual ballots--including those cast by the hairdresser, the councilman and the Hughes worker.

The hairdresser's unopened absentee ballot became an issue election night when Reviczky declined to count it because she said the signatures on the ballot and on the county voter registration roster did not match. The woman testified Wednesday that both signatures are her own, and opponents of the hotel asked the court to count the ballot because the woman has said that she voted against the project.

But Robert Hinerfeld, who represents the hotel's proponents and developers Joe Langlois and David Greenwood, argued against tallying the vote, saying that the hairdresser's place of residence has become an issue. Hinerfeld said he could produce a neighbor of the woman who would testify that the hairdresser has not lived for several months at the home she lists on voter records as her legal address.

Hinerfeld asked the hairdresser how many nights in June, the month of the election, she spent at a second address, where her boyfriend lives. After some hesitation, she said five. Hinerfeld also asked her where she slept over the Labor Day weekend, and she said at her boyfriend's home.

The woman's driver's license lists the second address, and, at her request, her absentee ballot was mailed to that address. The woman testified, however, that her father owns both residences and that she used to live at the second address but now lives at the address listed on voter records. She said that she listed the second address on her absentee ballot because she was there when she filled out the ballot.

Utility Bills Submitted

Sheila Donahue Miller, the attorney who represents opponents of the hotel, introduced the hairdresser's gas, water, telephone and electric bills at the address listed on voter records as evidence that the woman does indeed live there. Saeta did not rule on the issue.

Opponents of the hotel led the assault on DeBellis, who they say cast his ballot illegally by voting in a precinct where he does not live. DeBellis, who moved two months before the election, said he voted in his old precinct because his change-of-address form had been lost in the mail.

Miller challenged DeBellis' claim that he submitted a change-of-address form, noting that DeBellis' girlfriend, with whom he lives, had no problem with her change-of-address form. DeBellis' girlfriend's form was processed by the county and she was legally registered to vote in her new precinct at the time of the election, DeBellis said.

Miller asked DeBellis, a vocal proponent of the hotel, to disclose how he voted on the issue, but DeBellis declined when Hinerfeld objected. But Judge Saeta ordered the councilman to disclose the information after he was told that DeBellis had talked to a reporter about his vote. State law protects a voter from disclosing his vote in court only if he has not revealed that information to someone else, Saeta said. DeBellis then testified that he voted yes.

Same Test Applied

Davey, the Hughes worker, was required to disclose her vote under the same legal test, but getting the disclosure proved somewhat more difficult for hotel proponents. Davey's absentee ballot came under scrutiny because it had been hand-delivered to the polling place by Peter Barks, brother of Councilman George Barks and an opponent of the hotel. City Clerk Reviczky counted the vote, but hotel opponents claim it was delivered illegally.

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