When Jack Walser, owner of Walser's art supply store in Torrance, received a ballot in the mail early this month from the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, he was perplexed.
The ballot for the nonprofit organization's board of directors' election was broken into two categories. The first section listed 13 incumbent board members seeking reelection with the instruction: "Vote for 13." The second section listed three challengers with the heading: "Vote for 2 only."
Handwritten on a cover letter attached to the ballot, Walser said, was an unsigned note recommending which challengers he should vote for.
"I belong to several professional associations, and this kind of ballot would be totally inappropriate," said Walser, who said he threw away the ballot and cover letter. "I am not an active member, and I didn't know the individuals on the ballot. . . . But it was inappropriate to get a ballot like that. It tends to prejudice what is supposed to be an impartial election."
Last week, Angels Gate Cultural Center Inc., which is licensed by the City of Los Angeles to run cultural and arts programs for the city at Angels Gate Park, held its election. The 13 incumbents were elected as were the two challengers promoted in the note Walser received.
Anne Alberts, a San Pedro legal secretary who takes dance classes at the center, was the only candidate to lose. Shortly after the election results were announced, Alberts accused the board of orchestrating the outcome--a charge the board has denied.
"The truth of the matter is that they consider this their private little club and anyone that tries to join is quickly invited not to," Alberts said later in an interview. "I am incensed that they don't want me to join the club."
Alberts and about half a dozen other members of the 340-member organization have written letters complaining about the election to the board of directors, harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores and the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, which last month granted the organization a three-year lease to operate the center rent free. The group, which was first licensed in 1981, runs an art gallery and offers various art, dance, theater and other classes in converted Army barracks at the former military base.
Alberts and the others said the election violated the organization's bylaws, and they asked the city to intervene. Flores' office said it would ask the city attorney to look into the matter.
Tom Towse, outgoing president of the Angels Gate board, said in an interview that the organization's bylaws governing elections are confusing, but he said the ballot did not violate the bylaws' intent.
Towse said the ballot was structured--in accordance with the spirit of the bylaws--to guarantee the reelection of the incumbents to "ensure that there is a continuity on the board."
"With a new three-year license on the property, (the city) needed the assurance that the majority of those people whom they were dealing with at the beginning of the contract would be the same people who were responsible throughout the contract," Towse said.
George Beck, who was elected by the board Tuesday night to succeed Towse, agreed.
"We are going to redo the bylaws and try to take away the area of confusion," Beck said. "But we want to keep a continuous level of experience on the board."
'Dumb Thing to Do'
As for the handwritten notes accompanying some ballots, Beck said, "it was a dumb . . . thing to do." He said the notes were written by Executive Director Roberta MacFaden Miller, but no one on the board was aware of them until after the election.
"I told her there would have been nothing wrong with her writing to people as long as she sent it in a separate envelope and she did it on her own," Beck said. "It gives the wrong impression to put it in the ballot envelope."
In an interview, Miller offered no apologies for the notes, saying she wrote them only to about two dozen "very close friends." She said she did nothing wrong, although she acknowledged that "it could have been a mistake" to send the notes with the ballots rather than separately.
"I think people are giving me an awful lot more power than I have," Miller said. "People will vote their heart no matter what you tell them."
Late last week, in response to complaints about the election, Flores' office sent a letter to the city attorney's office asking for a review of the organization's bylaws and the city's lease agreement, said Flores Deputy Mario Juravich. Juravich said Flores wants to know if the city has any jurisdiction in the dispute.
"Our office feels the ballot should have been structured much better to reflect the bylaws," Juravich said. "The bylaws and the ballot are not compatible."
Diane Gill, who oversees the organization's lease for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the department joined Flores in requesting the review. Gill said, however, that the department rejected requests from Alberts and others before the election to stop the balloting.