MAIN LIBRARY – Democracy showed its messy side at a neighborhood group’s annual meeting Saturday morning when angry residents demanded and won a chance to elect new leadership over protestations from the organization’s chair.

The membership of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition, more commonly known as Wilmont, voted 47-4 to proceed with their board election using provisional ballots, but only after a motion was passed to remove Chair Valerie Griffin. Griffin tried to adjourn the meeting before the vote could be taken in an attempt to stop the election.

Other business on the agenda, including a discussion of the new zoning law and crime, was put on hold.

Advocates for the vote held that Griffin and other members of her board have operated in secrecy, making decisions that were against the will of the Wilmont membership and inventing new eligibility rules to stymie would-be candidates and maintain their hold on the organization.

Some board members, however, accuse the 11 people who tried to get on Saturday’s ballot of being organized by the Huntley Hotel, an outside business interest that has so far opposed the revitalization of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, a major development project adjacent to the Huntley.

The Wilmont board has come out in support of the Fairmont remodel.

While all candidates objected to the one-note characterization of their motivations, they also stated that it shouldn’t matter.

The bylaws of the organization define a qualified candidate as one who is a member of Wilmont and sends in a petition for candidacy with signatures from 10 Wilmont members at least 10 days before the election.

Any attempt to change those criteria was considered manipulation of the democratic process and a violation of the bylaws.

“A person who is in office in any organization has no right to choose their opposition,” said Jim Pickerell, a professor at Los Angeles City College and one of the new candidates for the board.

The days preceding the vote were filled with a flurry of activity as candidates tried to ensure they would be given the chance to stand for election that the Wilmont board was actively trying to cancel.

On Tuesday, the candidates were informed that Wilmont had a requirement that candidates belong to the group for a year, attend at least three board meetings in the last six months and participate actively in the group’s activities.

Thursday afternoon, Griffin told the Daily Press that she was considering canceling the vote because she couldn’t determine whether or not the new candidates were eligible to stand in the election.

The board of the Wilmont sent out an e-mail to the membership late Thursday night, less than 72 hours before the gathering was to take place, renaming the meeting a “community meeting” rather than the “annual meeting.”

The one-word change makes a world of difference.

According to Wilmont’s bylaws, the election of officers must take place at the group’s annual meeting. By re-characterizing it was a “community meeting,” the board felt that the requirement to hold the election would be lifted.

The reason provided for the change was the hospitalization of the 83-year-old director of membership, Marcia Carter, who had fallen and broken a hip.

Carter was the only one who had access to physical copies of membership information, some of which had not been recorded in any computer system. That documentation was necessary not only to establish who could vote, but which of the 11 candidates that had tried to get on the ballot at the end of May were eligible, Griffin said.

Many of the candidates joined the organization very recently, and most had signed each other’s nominating petitions. That meant that the only proof that candidates were members and had valid nominating signatures was locked in Carter¬ís apartment, making it uncertain that they were eligible to run. Griffin said.

Susan Scarafia, an active member of various Santa Monica groups, proposed that each person in the room cast a provisional ballot, which could then be authenticated when the membership rolls were available.

That drew a wave of criticism from active board members on the belief that the vote would be invalid. Vice Chair Albin Gielicz, who took over after Griffin was voted out, chose to proceed in spite of the naysayers.

“With all due respect, I think we will take the vote and let the momentum of the room go,” Gielicz said, noting that if any legal review takes place to support or invalidate the vote, so be it.

The board will be consulting with legal counsel about the vote, Griffin said.

Ballots were put in envelopes which voters then sealed, signed and placed in a ballot box. The slit in the top of the box was then taped over and signed to prevent any kind of tampering.

Gielicz was entrusted with the box, which will make its debut in coming weeks when membership documents are available and another public meeting can be called to count the votes.

“Democracy prevailed, and I’ll be able to walk out of the room content that we had the election,” Gielicz said after the vote. “The validity and eligibility is all to be determined later.”

Jeanne Dodson, a former chair of Wilmont and one of the 11 candidates running for the spots, said that she was thrilled with the outcome.

¬ìWe don¬ít know who won or lost,” she said, “but the important thing is that democracy prevailed.”

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