When one-time surf-shop manager Donna Frye surged to within an eyelash of the San Diego mayor's office last month, the city's media had their biggest political story in years. But the razor-thin vote margin...

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When one-time surf-shop manager Donna Frye surged to within an eyelash of the San Diego mayor’s office last month, the city’s media had their biggest political story in years.

But the razor-thin vote margin also thrust reporters into an ethical dilemma: How far were they willing to go to examine disputed write-in votes that potentially could tip the contest to Frye?

Three TV stations and two newspapers helped instigate a recount of several thousand ballots last week.

The news outlets said the value of their hands-on review quickly became evident — uncovering 5,547 ballots on which voters had written in Frye’s name but had failed to color in an adjacent oval, or “bubble.” If a judge decides the votes must be counted, they could wipe out a 2,108-vote victory for incumbent Mayor Dick Murphy, a result county officials certified this month.

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But the involvement of reporters has drawn a rebuke from Murphy’s lawyer and complaints from some readers and viewers, who claimed the news outlets had forsaken their journalistic impartiality.

“The feeling is bewilderment, I guess,” said Bob Ottilie, Murphy’s lawyer. “The press financed something — the recount — that could change the story. They became the story.”

KPBS-TV Channel 15, the city’s public-television station, and its public-radio affiliate KPBS-FM, got about 60 complaints from viewers and listeners who said their donations to the station had been used to advance Frye’s political agenda.

Even within the School of Communication at San Diego State University, experts couldn’t agree on the matter.

Bill Eadie, the school’s director, said the media had fulfilled their “obligation to the public to do whatever it takes, within the realm of legality, to produce information on a matter of great public interest.”

But Tim Wulfemeyer, journalism-degree coordinator in the same department, said in an e-mail that the media’s action “smacked of subjective reporting. It appeared (the journalists) were Frye supporters and wanted to help her.”

San Diego’s political elite never would have predicted the saga of the “unbubbled Frye votes” when the 52-year-old city councilwoman belatedly entered the November mayoral election as a write-in candidate against two establishment figures: Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

But Frye surprised most local analysts when her stance as a maverick — and as the only council member who voted against under-funding the city’s pension system — proved to be popular with voters.

The outcome has remained clouded because — although state law requires voters to color in the oval next to a write-in vote — Frye voters say ballots without marked ovals also should be counted.

By the time the Murphy victory was certified Dec. 7, the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune and other news organizations already had requested, under the California Public Records Act, to examine the ballots. But Deputy County Counsel Dennis Floyd said the state Elections Code prohibited public scrutiny of ballots “except under certain narrow circumstances, including a request for a recount.”

The two newspapers — along with KPBS, ABC-television affiliate KGTV-TV Channel 10 and NBC affiliate KNSD-TV Channel 39 — were told there was another wrinkle: Recount requests had to be made in the name of a San Diego voter, who in turn had to ask for the recount in the name of one of the candidates.

Suddenly, a fairly routine journalistic exercise had been cast in starkly different terms. Reporters accustomed to making public-records requests in their names — and under the rubric of the public’s right to know — had to name partisan surrogates to get the information they wanted.

The issue provoked varying degrees of debate within the news organizations.

Tony Perry, the Times’ San Diego bureau chief, considered the question fairly straightforward.

“There was no getting around it. This was the only way to get this information that the public really wanted to know,” Perry said. “It was a mandatory price that we had to pay.”

Internal debate about whether to proceed became most intense at KNSD. One news producer and 20-year reporter Gene Cubbison made strong arguments against joining the recount.

“I said we need to ask for the information, and if we can’t get it through the Public Records Act, then we sue someone,” Cubbison said. “We argue only for the right to know, not on behalf of somebody. … I told them, ‘Let’s just bark outside the door, and if that doesn’t work, then let’s kick it in using the Public Records Act.’ “

All the news organizations were careful to state that their requests should not be construed as endorsements of Frye.

The formal recount began Dec. 14, with “requesters” from the media and the candidates’ representatives scattered around five tables.

Journalists looked at, but could not touch, the ballots. They noted that most of the voters had written Frye’s full name, although some managed just “Donna.” Two wrote “Donna Fried” and “Donna Frayed.”

Not long into the second day of the review, the media had produced a number: 5,547 ballots with Frye’s name rendered in some form, but with adjacent ovals unmarked. Because some of the media had not paid (at a cost of $933 for most news outlets) to be part of the recount, Perry was designated to announce the results.

“We were able to get firsthand information, as opposed to secondhand information that might have come from one of the combatants in the situation,” he said.

The journalists involved in the recount stood by their decision, saying it was up to Frye to decide whether the findings might be used to change the election outcome.