It’s one of the messiest, meanest campaigns ever. And no, it’s not the presidential election.
But, it’s going to be a lot easier to vote in the presidential election than it was at the Studio City Neighborhood Council election this week. A lot of the election hassles could have been prevented, and what hoped to be a way to encourage voting ended up making it one of the worst turnouts ever.
By Tuesday morning, April 12, 2016, when the votes get counted in public with the provisional ballots, there could be a whole new face to the community’s Neighborhood Council after one of the most contentious local voting battles ever waged.
At the moment, it seems like the preliminary results have so far unseated longtime council members Lana Shackelford and Gail Steinberg (whose name is on many neighborhood park benches as a popular real estate agent.)
Lisa Sarkin, the board president, remains two votes behind newcomer Eric Preven and six votes behind newcomer Patrice Berlin in a race for only two spots in the Employee/Independent Contractor seat. Keith Schwalenberg, another newcomer, is far behind at 15 votes and Brandon Pender, who was on the board, but was voted off last election, has only 8 votes
Incumbents Richard Neiderberg, Alex Izbicki, Denise Welvang, Lisa Karadjian and Rita Villa seem safe so far in their seats, but again, there are 63 provisional ballots that could sway any of the races.
Oddly enough, Rob Schiller, who supposedly dropped out of the running and didn’t show up at the community forum, is beating James Becher in the At-Large seat. Becher is a known activist who has been a longtime member of committee meetings, which many of the candidates said they never attended.
See the preliminary counts here.
Even before the votes are counted finally, there are factions who are claiming fraud in the elections and the process. Some were complaining about bus loads of workers from the Sportsman’s Lodge coming in to vote as employees in the hotly contested race. It is thought that many of those are among the provisional ballots.
Preven started a petition against the voting and asked that the whole thing be delayed, but the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment said no. Preven said he even took the issue to the mayor himself and spoke about it asking for help.
Meanwhile, the online and on sight voting was a fiasco for many people. The board voted for the first time to require papers to prove that a person can vote in a specific category. That proved to be very difficult for some people and they gave up, or just didn’t try.
Lisa Sarkin said she was aware of the potential problems from the beginning and at the meeting months ago explained how it was going to bring up a lot of problems. Most neighborhood councils go by “self affirmation” and require only the most basic of documents (driver’s license), to prove who you are. But, Studio City has many categories such as renters, homeowners, employees, service organization, where you have to vote in only the categories you are a stakeholder and representative of. There was a fear that fraud would be committed online without proof.
But, even with proof, some people were turned away. The husband-and-wife team of John and Debra Van Tongeren who lived in the area since 1986 stood in separate lines. She was approved as a homeowner with a gas bill, he was turned down as a homeowner with their water bill.
“It’s the first time we tried to vote in these elections, and they certainly made it hard,” John said. “We just wanted to participate in the community.”
The couple have strong opinions about community issues that have divided Studio City. They want to see improved expansion of the Sportsman’s Lodge complex, and they don’t mind the bridge proposed over Coldwater Canyon by Harvard-Westlake.
“We can see that the Neighborhood Council needs some new blood,” added Debra, who was the PTA president at Carpenter Community Charter School in years past. “I also don’t care about large houses, and feel like people should be able to build whatever they want on their property.”
A half dozen other people had trouble voting in categories they thought they should have been allowed to vote in, but gave up, or were turned away.
I’ll give you my personal tale of woe trying to vote at the neighborhood council. Firstly, I consider Studio City home, although I live just outside the official boundary. My nephews both go to schools here, I hang out, bowl, do martial arts, go to church, attend community meetings and do all my shopping in Studio City. My chiropractor, dentist, drug store, dry cleaner, favorite Ralphs are all in Studio City. I take my dogs to the dog park here, and hike in the canyons here. I know people when I walk down the street, and write the Studio City Community Activism Examiner column and even have MrStudioCity as my Twitter handle. And, I have attended more Neighborhood Council meetings than most of the newcomers running for the seats.
Guess what? I almost couldn’t vote. At the last election, I was a poll worker who was trained in helping people vote in the right categories. Last time, I knew that a certain person was a member of a local PTA, or went to the church around the corner, and could help them vote in this category or that category even if they didn’t have the paperwork. After four hours of voting and registering hundreds of people, I counted only three people who were in the wrong location to vote, and two others who really wanted to vote for a specific person but wasn’t eligible.
Last time I voted in five categories legitimately, this time I was afraid I couldn’t vote at all.
I tried a few times to vote online. I twice uploaded documents and got no response, or was told I was not eligible. I called Stephen Box from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, who tried to walk me through a few of the issues to try to become eligible. My card of Studio City Community Activism Examiner doesn’t have an office in Studio City. I don’t have a membership card to my church, and I wasn’t going to ask my pastor for a letter during Easter week, it seemed ridiculous.
Then, I found out that my personal items, including my passport and other documents were shared with others inadvertently. This happened even after I specifically asked Box if others would be able to see those documents, and being assured that they would all be destroyed. It’s inaccurate to blame anyone on the present Neighborhood Council for that blunder as some people already have, but it shouldn’t have happened at all.
Showing up in person, I still worried about not being able to vote, but ended up being eligible to cast votes in three categories.
The council should remain on holding elections and allowing “self affirmation” as it has in the past. It was easy, it was flawless, and if anyone really wants to show up for voting for this council, they’re certainly not going to be trying to commit fraud. These are advisory committees there to help the community, and they’re usually run by people who really care. There’s no money involved, no power. So, it was a big mistake to call for documents in this complex process, and the voting online that was supposed to make it easier, actually turned out more complicated as Sarkin had predicted.
The online voting was supposed to increase the number of voters, and encourage people who couldn’t make it to the poll site to vote online. When Neighborhood Councils were first started, Studio City got 241 people to vote in 2003. Voting reached 753 in 2005 and a high of 968 in 2007, but declined in more recent years and the last election in 2014 only drew out 367 voters who came out to the Walter Reed Middle School voting site when I was a poll worker. The election with the fewest voters was in 2008 with only 174.
This year, I thought it was a robust crowd lined up at the auditorium, but it turned out that was for a concert at the school. In the main building there were more volunteers than voters, and outside, there were more candidates than interested community members.
This year 390 votes were cast (including the 62 provisional ballots). A total of 268 actually showed up on the site, the rest were online. About 22 of the provisional ballots were never counted because they needed more documentation.
As much as Studio City has been a leader in how Neighborhood Councils should work, this most recent fiasco shows exactly how it should not be done. The provisional ballots will be counted on Tuesday with witnesses allowed to be there at 10 a.m. when counted. But, it has been a long and bumpy ride.