A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Wednesday overturned the results of an election on a proposed $31-million beachfront hotel in Hermosa Beach, ruling that proponents of the bitterly contested project won the election by a single vote.
Judge Philip M. Saeta said in a written opinion that City Clerk Kathleen Reviczky had incorrectly considered three absentee ballots when she tallied the election results in June. According to the judge's final tally, the hotel won, 2,400 votes to 2,399.
Saeta's tally represents the third--and most decisive--setback in the election for opponents of the hotel, who have seen a four-vote victory margin on election night reduced to defeat over a three-month period.
Three days after the election, the four-vote victory was shaved to one vote when Reviczky decided to count several challenged ballots. A recount two weeks later set the victory at two votes, but last week, on a tentative ruling involving two of the three disputed absentee ballots, Saeta locked the results in a tie. Proponents of the hotel needed a majority of votes to win.
But opponents of the hotel, who were outspent 8 to 1 by proponents in the June campaign, said the decision does not end the dispute over the project, which would be built on the Strand between 13th and 15th streets. Harold Cohen, operator of La Playita restaurant and a major contributor to the Hotel Referendum Committee, which opposes the hotel, said the committee will appeal the decision.
"I am disappointed, but I don't see any reason to be concerned," Cohen said. "There is substantial grounds for appeal. I have resigned myself to the fact that this is going to be dragged out over a long period of time."
Hotel opponents also continue to find solace in a court ruling in May that declared the June election illegal, Cohen said. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John L. Cole at that time ordered the city to cancel the special election because it followed too closely an election on a similar hotel proposal in November. The city held the election anyway, pending an appeal by the developers and the City Council. The appeal has not yet been heard.
"I think it ought to be a lesson to everybody that they ought to vote, that each vote does count," Cohen said. "It should set an example to everyone to take an interest in local politics."
David Greenwood of Greenwood & Langlois, developers of the proposed project, agreed that Judge Saeta's decision does not mean the 250-room hotel will be under construction anytime soon. He said the developers are "encouraged" by the ruling but said they are prepared for other legal obstacles.
"It has been a long time in coming to an election result," Greenwood said. "But this is no doubt not the end of it."
Judge Saeta's decision to overturn the election results hinged on three of 14 ballots that had been contested by Michael Escalante, a proponent of the hotel acting on behalf of the developers, and Sheila Donahue Miller, a hotel opponent and member of the Referendum Committee. Saeta ruled that Reviczky had acted properly when she counted or rejected all but three of the contested ballots.
Two of the three ballots disputed by Saeta were not tallied by Reviczky because they were marked with a pen rather than by punching a hole through the ballot. Hermosa Beach uses punch-card ballots, and Reviczky said that voters are required to punch out their votes. She quoted guidelines from Los Angeles County elections officials in support of her argument.
But Saeta ruled that the two pen-marked ballots--both "yes" votes--should have been counted on election night because the state election code allows for the use of a pencil as well as punching on punch-card ballots. "The pens used here were in substantial compliance with that procedure and placed no burden on voting procedures," Saeta wrote in his decision.
Saeta's ruling did not come as a surprise on Wednesday because he had made a similar tentative ruling on the two ballots during a hearing two weeks ago.
Probably the most crucial ballot in determining the outcome of the election was that of Margaret Davey, an employee of Hughes Aircraft Co. in Torrance. It was Saeta's decision to disallow her absentee ballot that provided the one-vote victory for hotel proponents.
Davey's ballot became an issue because it was hand-delivered to the polling place on Election Day by Peter Barks, brother of Councilman George Barks and an opponent of the hotel. Reviczky counted the vote, but hotel opponents claimed that the ballot had been delivered illegally--an opinion Judge Saeta shared.
Saeta wrote in his decision that only so-called "emergency absentee ballots"--those applied for after the posted deadline date--can be hand-delivered to the polling place by a third party. Davey had applied for and received a regular absentee ballot, meaning she was required to follow regular delivery procedures, he ruled.