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For some, Beverly Hills ballots went too Farsi

February 23, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

"Have you seen your ballot?" Gloria Seiff of Beverly Hills asked friend and fellow resident Betty Harris over the phone.

Harris had not. She opened the mail-in ballot and took one look. "I was shocked by it," she said.

For the first time, Beverly Hills had translated its entire absentee and sample ballots into Persian. The ballots for the March 6 municipal election, in which two City Council seats are up for grabs, went out this month, and the response was swift.

More than 300 residents phoned the city to complain. City Clerk Byron Pope fielded about 100 of them personally.

"I believe the cover is what shocked the community," said Pope, who had instructed the city's election materials supplier to print the entire ballot, cover to cover, in English and Persian, also known as Farsi. "I believe it was the Farsi script, with the war going on and all," he said.

The translation is the latest measure of the growing Persian influence in Beverly Hills, where Persians now make up about a fifth of the city's 35,000 residents.

The influx, which began in the late 1970s as wealthy Iranians clustered in Beverly Hills after the fall of the shah, has made a mark on many facets of the city, from architecture to the schools.

But it has -- as in the case of the ballots -- caused friction. Some long-time residents have complained about newcomers tearing down historic homes in favor of what they consider monolithic white "Persian palaces."

At the same time, Persians have flexed their political muscle by holding voter registration drives, electing the first Persian to the City Council in 2003 and making the Persian new year a holiday for students.

Three of the six candidates running for City Council next month were born in Iran, and Councilman Jimmy Delshad will serve as Beverly Hills' first Persian mayor if he wins reelection.

For Nanaz Pirnia, president of the Beverly Hills Iranian American Parents Assn., the ballots are about making voting accessible to all of Beverly Hills.

"I'd rather see people understand the dynamics and what's going on, because voting is a very serious matter," she said. "In Iran we had kingship, and for Iranians to understand the vote in their native language is an advantage to our city."

But other residents say it works against the integration of the Persian community in the city.

"It sends a bad message," said Louis Lipofsky, a lawyer. "It's a message which is divisive, which I believe is designed to separate as opposed to unite. In fact, it's done that."

The move to a full Persian translation in election materials started three years ago when the City Council directed the city clerk to determine how many Persian speakers lived in the city. Clerk Nina Webster conducted a survey of Beverly Hills High School students that estimated that 15% of Beverly Hills residents spoke Persian as a first language. The next year, the City Council included Persian text in its 2005 election materials, but it did not translate the cover, and Persian and English appeared on separate pages.

This year, Pope, the new city clerk, put Persian text on the entire ballot, cover and all. The ballot has a bilingual English-Persian cover, and the two languages intermingle on the inside pages.

On the ballot card, where voters make their marks, Spanish also appears, upping the number of languages on one page to three, and putting some voters off.

"It was a design error," suggested voter Rose Norton. "It really looked like a menu from a Farsi restaurant with a translation in English." Norton said she found it "offensive" and threw the sample ballot away immediately after she cast her absentee vote.

Pope said the latest change was recommended by the city's supplier and printer, Martin & Chapman Co., which has worked with several cities in Los Angeles County that are under federal consent decrees for not offering fully translated ballots. Though Beverly Hills is not one of them, Martin & Chapman suggested the change as a precaution, Pope said.

The Anaheim-based company charged Beverly Hills an additional $5,025 to translate its 2005 ballot into Persian. The company's estimate for this year is $7,500, Pope said.

"We don't want to disenfranchise any section of our community from voting. We're trying not to exclude," Pope said. "If writing the information in their language helps them to vote without anyone assisting them, we're going to do it."

Pope said that in the 2005 election, fewer than 50 voters requested Persian language ballots at the polls, and none asked for Spanish translations.

"It's possible that this ballot has gone overboard," said Councilman Delshad, who immigrated nearly 50 years ago as a teenager.

"We want to reach out to others, but at the same time make it one unified community," he said. "To the extent that it might be divisive, I don't like it."

Beverly Hills is not the only city to have more than one language on its standard ballot.

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