A contested seat on Malibu's future City Council remained in doubt last week, and a spokesman for the Los Angeles County registrar's office said it may be several more days before it is known whether slow-growth activist Missy Zeitsoff or retired Judge John Merrick is the winner.
"It's miserable when you want to celebrate and can't," said Zeitsoff, the apparent fifth-place finisher in last Tuesday's incorporation election in which voters overwhelmingly approved cityhood and chose a five-member council.
Zeitsoff, the former secretary of the pro-cityhood Malibu Township Council, had 21 votes more than Merrick, with an unknown number of write-in and absentee ballots yet to be counted.
Among the 30 contenders were two write-in candidates, including attorney Sam Birenbaum, who spent about $10,000 on his campaign. Some observers estimate that there may be between 100 and several hundred write-in and absentee ballots that remain to be counted.
Such ballots are counted separately and by hand, causing the delay.
"We have no way at this point of segregating absentees and write-ins by community and thus no real way of even knowing how many such ballots there may be from Malibu," said Marcia Ventura, a spokeswoman for the registrar's office.
Despite trailing, Merrick found some humor in the situation.
"The joke around my house is that if I win, we're going to demand a recount," said the 71-year-old retired Municipal Court judge, whose wife, while supportive, is known to have preferred that he not enter the race.
Meanwhile, Malibu's incorporation, which cannot occur until after the election results are certified in a few weeks, also remains clouded.
County officials have asked a state appeals court to delay the actual incorporation date until next March, and a hearing on the matter has been set for July 18. However, in setting the hearing last week, a three-judge panel in Los Angeles left open the possibility of allowing incorporation to go forward by late June or early July, pending written opinions from lawyers for the county and cityhood supporters.
The county is seeking the delay in a bid to start work on a $43-million regional sewer system in Malibu before a new city government has the chance to block it.
A victory for Zeitsoff would represent a clean sweep of the council by slow-growth activists, who are already celebrating a whopping 84% approval of cityhood by Malibu voters.
The four confirmed winners include Walt Keller, the top vote-getter, and Carolyn Van Horn, who were co-chairs of the Malibu Committee for Incorporation before resigning to run for office. Larry Wan, the second-highest vote-getter, was president of the Malibu Township Council, and Mike Caggiano has long been associated with the group.
As a judge in the community for 22 years, Merrick, along with Keller, was considered to be the most recognizable of the candidates and was widely mentioned as a favorite prior to the election. He was the only candidate among the top nine vote-getters who was not affiliated with either of the two pro-cityhood groups.
Land-use attorney Paul Shoop, who far outspent other candidates, finished 10th, and real estate broker Richard Idler came in a distant 12th in the balloting. They, along with Merrick, were singled out in ads placed in Malibu's two weekly newspapers by opponents who questioned their support of cityhood.
Although once opposed to cityhood, Merrick and Shoop campaigned in favor of it. Idler was less enthusiastic about incorporation, expressing concern about the adequacy of the city's projected $5-million budget, but said that since he was convinced that voters desired cityhood, he wanted a role in Malibu's future.
The City Council outcome surprised even some cityhood boosters. They labeled the incorporation vote as a mandate for preserving the community as a semi-rural enclave, and proof that residents reject the county's blueprint for widespread development that they had warned was a threat to Malibu's future.
"I think it's clear people voted for those they know will protect Malibu from excessive development and rejected others that they felt wouldn't follow through with that," Van Horn said.
Besides being co-chairwoman, with Keller, of the incorporation group for 2 1/2 years, Van Horn, a retired schoolteacher, is an environmental activist who is associated with Save Our Coast, a Malibu-based environmental group.
Keller, a retired aerospace engineer who has a Ph.D. from UCLA, has been in the vanguard of the cityhood movement for nearly 30 years.
Of the confirmed winners, he and Van Horn have been the most outspoken about restricting new residential and commercial growth. They have suggested that an existing land-use plan for the Malibu area may not be tough enough to deal with future development.
Wan, a business executive with a Ph.D. in engineering from Yale, derived much of his political strength from his 2 1/2 years as president of the 2,000-member Malibu Township Council.