VISTA — A Superior Court judge gave redevelopment supporters here a final victory Monday, ruling that four ballots that helped defeat a redevelopment initiative in the Nov. 5 election were wrongly invalidated by the county Registrar of Voters.
The ruling by Judge F.V. Lopardo means that Proposition K passes by four votes and the City of Vista will have a redevelopment agency.
Opponents said they did not plan to appeal Lopardo's decision, but would attempt to thwart redevelopment in other ways.
After scrutinizing each ballot with a magnifying glass, Lopardo said, "Exhibits one, three, four and six are valid votes in favor of Proposition K, and the results of the voting should be so changed to reflect the findings of this court."
Two other contested ballots were rejected by the judge as illegally punched, but the initiative, which finished in a tie after a recount, needed only one "yes" vote to pass.
Mayor Mike Flick, who campaigned heavily for Proposition K and called the vote the most critical issue facing Vistans since incorporation in 1962, said he was "delighted" with the ruling.
"It is absolutely essential that Vista have redevelopment if it's going to meet the capital improvement needs of the community," said the mayor. "Thanks to the judge, we've got it. Now we can get things going."
Lopardo was asked to rule on six ballots rejected by county officials as invalid because they were punched outside of the proper column or because the "chad"--the voter's perforated target on the ballot--was not punched through. In some cases, there was only an indentation on the chad.
Flick's attorney, William Wittke, contended that although the punch marks on the disputed ballots weren't perfect, the voters' intent--a "yes" vote on K--was clear.
"We are before this court not to challenge the entire system of the San Diego County registrar and their voting process," Wittke said in his closing statement. "The intent of this challenge is to benefit the voter so as not to disenfranchise him. Our position is that each of these ballots indicates an attempt to vote and should be counted."
But county Registrar Ray Ortiz, who testified at length during the four-hour hearing, said that according to guidelines used throughout California and approved by Secretary of State March Fong Eu, the ballots were no good.
"The procedures are that a vote counts if there . . . is a clear punch," Ortiz testified. "It also counts if the chad is detached at two corners or three corners . . . and gives us the impression that the voter's intent was that it count."
Lopardo, however, rejected the registrar's guidelines when County Counsel Bruce Beem could not cite a law requiring that the ballot be punched all the way through in order for a vote to count.
"Where in the election code does it say that the stylus has to go all the way through the chad?" Lopardo asked the county registrar. "It doesn't say that."
Instead, Lopardo said, the applicable section of the California Election Code simply states that "punched means a tabulating card on which the voter may record his vote by punching, marking or slotting." Using those criteria, Lopardo ruled that four of the six disputed ballots passed the test.
Despite Monday's ruling--and the judge's clear indictment of the registrar's procedures--Ortiz said he had no intention of altering the process he uses to evaluate ballots in question.
"I'm not going to change a thing," Ortiz said. "It's a judgment call--I made my judgment and the judge made a different judgment. We have good rules and I don't see any reason to change them."
Ortiz added that, "We've had many different election rulings turned down by Superior Courts all across California. But we maintain our rules and procedures."
In his six years as San Diego County's registrar, Ortiz said, he has been in court concerning election issues 64 times. Monday's was the first time a judge ruled against him, he said.
Meanwhile, opponents who soundly defeated a similar effort to launch redevelopment in Vista ten years ago, said they were disheartened by Lopardo's ruling but determined to continue the fight.
"We can't afford the courts, so that route's dead," said Patsy Filo, a community activist involved with Vistans for Honest Government. "But there are 3,000-plus people out there who voted against this thing, and they're pretty mad that our mayor just went against their will and got the judge to side with him.
"We'll nip this thing in the bud somewhere along the line."
Filo speculated that opponents would place an initiative on the ballot challenging the master plan the City Council must draft before proceeding with specific redevelopment projects.
Monday's ruling marked the latest--and possibly final--chapter in the dramatic saga of Proposition K, a measure supported by a well-funded coalition of civic leaders and developers and opposed by a loose-knit group of residents led by Councilman Lloyd von Haden.
Initial election returns showed the measure had failed by one vote. The following day, registrar officials said 40 absentee ballots had yet to be counted, and proponents had new hope. It was short-lived; the tally after that count showed Proposition K losing by three votes.
Because of the close finish, Flick asked for a recount, which dragged on for two days and finally showed that the issue had finished in a tie--3,726 "yes" votes and 3,726 "no" votes. But the issue was still a loser, because under California election law, ballot initiatives require a majority to pass.
Flick said that the City Council's first task likely would be to approve the ordinance creating a redevelopment agency. Then, the council will establish a redevelopment project area and get to work on a master plan, he said.