Los Angeles city officials have been advised to delay signing a lease with the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro for six months or for as long as it takes to resolve a challenge to the center's recent election of board members.
That advice came from the city attorney's office, which had been asked by Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores and the city Department of Recreation and Parks to look into allegations that the September election was rigged.
Until the election issue is resolved, the city attorney's opinion said, "the city cannot be certain who is authorized to represent and act on behalf of" Angels Gate Cultural Center.
The organization, established in 1981 as a private nonprofit corporation, is authorized by the city to provide cultural programs and classes for the community as well as studio space for artists. The center makes its home in a complex of World War II military buildings at Angels Gate Park, which was once part of Fort MacArthur.
One More Setback
The city attorney's opinion, dated Friday and released this week by Flores, marks another setback for the struggling center.
In addition, the opinion paves the way for disgruntled members of the center to file a lawsuit demanding a new election, which they say they will do if center officials do not hold one.
In the opinion, Deputy City Atty. Mark Brown concluded that the city has no jurisdiction to decide the outcome of an election involving a private entity such as the cultural center. He recommended that those challenging the vote seek private legal advice.
As for the lease, Brown wrote that "the city could be entering into a legally unenforceable agreement with (the cultural center) if the city were to do so having actual knowledge of the dispute concerning who is authorized to represent and act for" the center.
Brown said signing the three-year lease "would place the city in a precarious position concerning the management and control of its own property."
Instead, he suggested that execution of the lease agreement between the center and the city be delayed until one of the following three conditions has been met: after June 15, 1988, no legal action has been filed against the center; a final judgment is entered in any legal action filed contesting the validity of the election; the disputed election is resolved in some other way.
Recreation officials said they would follow Brown's advice and would allow the center to operate on a month-to-month basis until the election issue is resolved. Diane Gill, harbor area supervisor for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said her department would not get involved in the election dispute.
The city attorney's ruling effectively gives critics of the center six months to file suit. Two leading critics, March Beagle and Anne Alberts, said they were generally pleased with the ruling, but both criticized the city attorney for "sidestepping" the issue by not intervening in the election.
Beagle said the two will attend the next meeting of the Angels Gate board on Dec. 21 and will ask for a new election and for the replacement of Executive Director Roberta McFaden Miller. If the board does not agree to both, Beagle said she and Alberts will file suit.
George Beck, president of the Angels Gate board, said its executive committee will meet tonight to discuss the city attorney's opinion. He said that Miller is doing a good job and he would oppose replacing her but said the board could consider it.
Miller did not return a reporter's phone call.
The cultural center has about 340 members--Beagle and Alberts among them--who pay dues and therefore are eligible to vote in board elections. The September election is being challenged because the ballot was structured to ensure the reelection of 13 incumbents.
The ballot had two sections. The first listed the 13 incumbents and told voters to choose 13 candidates. The second section listed three candidates and asked voters to choose only two.
Miller acknowledged that she enclosed unsigned notes in some ballot letters, instructing center members which two candidates to pick. Alberts, the candidate who lost, was not recommended by Miller.
Violation of Bylaws
Alberts and Beagle contend the election violated the center's bylaws, which call for the center to have 25 directors, nine of whom serve a one-year term, eight of whom serve a two-year term and eight of whom serve a three-year term. It is unclear why 15 directors were being elected at once in the September election.
The bylaws also say that "those candidates receiving the highest number of votes shall be declared elected as directors."
Angels Gate board members say the two-tiered ballot was structured in accordance with the spirit of the center's bylaws, but say the bylaws are confusing and are being revised.
Tom Towse, former board president, said in September that center officials wanted the incumbents reelected because they felt the city, which at that point was about to sign the three-year lease, wanted continuity on the board.
The city attorney's ruling comes at a difficult time for the cultural center. In October, the center lost the right to use two of its buildings because they do not conform to city code, a loss that prevents Angels Gate from holding theater productions and resulted in the cancellation of one of its money-makers, a Halloween haunted house.
Also in October, the center lost its status as a California nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation. State officials said the center was suspended for not filing a 1986 tax return. Although Angels Gate officials said in mid-November that the return had been filed and the status would be reinstated by the end of that month, state officials said that as of Wednesday, the center's corporate status was still suspended.