LOS ANGELES (CN) – Almost three years after residents of Los Angeles’ Skid Row lost a bid to form their own neighborhood council, a California judge declined Wednesday to invalidate the results of the election, even though the city acknowledged records of online votes were destroyed.
Residents claimed illegal voter suppression by the city affected the results of the election, but LA County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff said at a hearing Wednesday he would not change the results of the election.
In 2017, the city of Los Angeles held an election on the formation of a neighborhood council to represent Skid Row. Voters including property owners, residents and homeless people went to the polls throughout downtown over a several-day period to determine if the Skid Row area required a council that could report on land use issues.
The section of downtown LA is home to thousands of men, women and children who sleep on the sidewalk daily. Many others live in homes there and speculative developers have eyed the area as prime real estate. Over the last several years, aggressive development of downtown has inched toward the Skid Row corridor.
The formation of the council failed by 60 votes, according to city officials.
Advocates say the process to vote in the election was prejudiced against homeless people. They disputed that online votes were allowed and claimed that some people who could not confirm they lived in the area were turned away at polling locations, according to court filings from the Skid Row Council Formation Committee.
The results of the election were upheld by the agency that oversees the nearly 100 neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, despite recommendations by an election challenge panel to investigate the election.
According to the formation group, the decision by city officials to allow online voting was made a few days before the election even though at the time online voting was not allowed for neighborhood elections. But an exception was made for the Skid Row vote due to a report from a city agency that oversees voting.
The group complained the online voting was open to people with internet access 24 hours a day, while in-person voting pop-ups throughout downtown were limited to just a few hours a day. According to court filings, the vote to form the council body was defeated 766-826, with over 800 no votes coming from online voters.
The group asked Beckloff to invalidate the online votes, order the city agency to recount the votes that were cast and give Skid Row its neighborhood council.
On Wednesday, Beckloff asked the petitioners why they didn’t just have another election in 2018. He also said their legal analysis in court filings was lacking and asked their attorney Grant Beuchel what agency action they had issue with and what relief could be granted.
Beckloff said if the group was concerned about the conditions of the 2017 election, they should have sought a restraining order from the court ahead of the vote.
Beuchel asked Beckloff to invalidate the election to “send a message to the city.”
Beckloff denied the request, saying, “Don’t you think the city is aware of your concerns?”
He added: “There is nothing I can give you.”
Outside the court, Jeff Page and Katherine McNenny with the formation committee said they would weigh their options regarding an appeal.
Beckloff’s suggestion that the group hold another election or seek legal action before an election was difficult for the group to accept.
“Homeless people don’t always have the opportunity to come to the court to address those issues,” said Beuchel, a housed resident of Skid Row who said he has not practiced law in several years and took the case pro bono.
Outside the hearing housed Skid Row resident Don Garza said, “They don’t want to recognize that Skid Row is a residential community.
The Desert Storm combat veteran added: “They cheated and they lied. The city says to get over it, but we’re not. Skid Row wants accountability from the city.”
Page, who goes by “General Jeff,” said that there is no guarantee the city would provide the residents a fair election in the future.
“We won this election, why should we do this again?” said Page. “If we were wronged by them once, where is the guarantee that it won’t happen again?”
McNenny said, “I think we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that this is fraud. At every step up the ladder, the Skid Row Neighborhood Council Formation Committee has been met with dismissal.”