Ryan McDonald

Judge orders count of disputed votes in Homes Association suit

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by Ryan McDonald

Votes for positions on the Board of Directors of the Palos Verdes Homes Association will be counted Saturday, setting the stage for potential changes at the body that controls the appearance of thousands of homes on the Peninsula.

Los Angele County Superior Court Judge Ruth Kwan issued an order on Feb. 15 requiring that the association unseal and count ballots received in elections on Jan. 9 and Feb. 8 of this year, even though the association considers them invalid. The association has sought to prevent counting of the ballots because it did not receive the quorum needed under its bylaws.

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But in a lawsuit filed last year, a group called Residents for Open Board Elections (ROBE) has charged that the quorum requirement is used to entrench existing members of the association. According to Kwan’s order, the vote count on Saturday will not be used to elect new board members, but rather to assist her in deciding whether to modify the quorum requirement, and if so by how much.

The homes association is a century-old body in charge of the “Art Jury,” which regulates the appearance of homes in certain areas of the Peninsula. According to the association’s web site, original recorded deed restrictions make every property in the city of Palos Verdes Estates and the Miraleste area of Rancho Palos Verdes subject to the association’s authority.

The association has been the subject of numerous disputes over the past decade, including the sale of some parkland, which the association once managed, to a homeowner. The association has responded that these disputes are to be addressed through the election of board members, not the courts.

“There’s a way to deal with the sale of the parkland you don’t like and there’s a way to deal with the board you don’t like. It’s called running for an election,” said Brant Dveirin, an attorney representing the association, in a hearing late last year.

But the ROBE homeowners contend that this is futile because of the difficulty of reaching a quorum; their lawsuit in May came after an eighth consecutive year of a quorum not being reached.

Under the association’s bylaws, each property is assigned one vote for board positions, and at least 50 percent plus one of the properties must participate in order for a quorum to be reached. According to court documents, the quorum is currently 2,711 ballots.  As the suit proceeded, the association held its annual election for the board of directors on Jan. 9. The association issued three mailers for the ballot, including a notice of the election and a reminder to vote, but only 1,438 voters participated. The board voted to extend the vote until Feb. 8, when it received a total of 2,194 ballots.

Residents have argued that the association has deliberately suppressed the vote. Attorneys for the association counter that the failure to reach a quorum is primarily the result of indifference among residents.

“It’s not that these people aren’t trying hard. It’s that they don’t have an issue that the membership cares about,” Dveirin said in the hearing.

But these arguments appear not to have swayed the court. In arguments last year, Kwan seemed inclined toward lowering the quorum.

“At some point it becomes irrelevant because if year after year you don’t have enough members participating, there’s something wrong with the system. Because the system is not meant for existing board members to keep appointing new board members they like that are going to toe the line and think the way they think,” Kwan said.

It is not clear when the results of the count will be released, said Jeffrey Lewis, an attorney representing the ROBE homeowners. The count will be overseen by accounting firm Moss Adams, but Lewis said his clients will not be allowed to observe.

An email to Dveirin and another attorney for the association asking whether the association would appeal a decision to lower the quorum was not returned.

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