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City elections: Bell voters embrace a fresh start; council seats in West Hollywood at stake

March 8, 2011 |  1:51 pm

Alfonso Escobar said he recently lost his house when he couldn’t pay the high property taxes in Bell and was laid off as a special education contractor. But on Tuesday, he voted for the first time in a city election because he wanted “to make a difference.”

“We need a change in our city,” Escobar, 43, said. “Politics here have been corrupted for a long time and now we have a chance to do something about it,” added Escobar, wearing an “I voted” sticker and standing outside Epoca Hall, one of four polling places in the small city.

Escobar said he has lived in Bell for 38 years and attended Bell High with some of the candidates in Tuesday’s election, in which voters have the chance to replace the entire City Council. All but one face corruption-related charges of misappropriating money from the poor, largely Latino city. The ensuing scandal, touched off by The Times’ revelations of fat city salaries and inflated contracts, energized activists and voters, who, by mid-morning, were turning out in modest but steady numbers.

Bell is among 30 cities, three school districts and one community college district across Los Angeles County holding elections Tuesday.

From Azusa to West Hollywood, voters are choosing members of their city councils and, in some cases, mayors, city clerks or treasurers. Voters in the Los Angeles, Pasadena and Redondo Beach unified school districts and in the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District are choosing board members.

The college district election has taken on new visibility in the wake of a Times investigation that showed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted in a massive, poorly overseen construction and renovation program. Two incumbents on the seven-member board are running in Tuesday’s election, which has drawn 16 candidates for four seats.

Redondo Beach is conducting its first-ever all-mail balloting for two vacancies on the school board. Those who did not return the ballots mailed to every registered voter may turn them in through Tuesday at City Hall or at one of the city’s two libraries. City officials up for reelection drew no opponents so automatically will receive new terms.

In the city of Los Angeles, voters are filing seven of the 15 council seats and deciding on 10 ballot measures, including Measure I, to create an office of ratepayer advocate for the Department of Water and Power and Measure L, which would increase the amount of revenue available to libraries.

The hottest council races are in the Eastside-based 14th District, where businessman Rudy Martinez has run a spirited race against incumbent Councilman Jose Huizar, and in South Los Angeles’ 8th District, where Councilman Bernard C. Parks is battling the city’s powerful public employee unions, which are backing his main challenger, Forescee Hogan-Rowles, an executive with a nonprofit.

In West Hollywood, founded in 1984 on the crest of the gay rights movement, six challengers are attempting to oust three incumbent council members. The challengers, all gay men, say the current office-holders have strayed from the city’s roots by encouraging gentrification and pricey developments that younger gays are finding unaffordable. Mayor John Heilman, who is gay, is running on a slate with the two other incumbents.

But in financially crippled Bell, it’s public corruption, not gentrification, that’s driving the election.

With former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, his assistant Angela Spaccia, and six past or present City Council members facing charges of looting the city treasury to give themselves fat salaries, pensions and other perks, all five council seats are up for grabs. Councilman Lorenzo Velez, the lone office-holder not charged with a crime, is the only incumbent mounting a reelection effort.

In all, 17 candidates are on the ballot, though one died unexpectedly last week. His name remains on the ballot.

Activists with the Bell Assn. To Stop the Abuse, formed in the wake of the scandal, have been campaigning door to door, urging people to vote. The police union has been working to put candidates in office who will vote to keep the department, which is at risk of being disbanded because of budget problems.

Activity at polling places Tuesday bore evidence of the heated campaign. At two of the four polling places, voters at any given time were outnumbered by county election observers, news crews and candidates.

At the Epoca Hall, some voters complained about the proximity of some of the candidates who stood just outside the required 100-foot “no electioneering” zone.

For the most part, however, county observer Alicia Vargas said things were going smoothly and that turnout was good for a city election. She and other observers said they expected more voters to show up after 3 p.m. as people begin to get off work or pick up their children from school.

By noon, 11.7% of the registered voters in Bell had gone to the polls, according to the Los Angeles County registrar of voters.

“This election is very, very important,” Luz Martinez, 49, said after casting her ballot. “I hope this election brings only good things to our city. We are tired of this corruption.” She added she regularly votes in municipal elections and hopes the scandal will bring more Bell residents to the polls.

A couple of blocks away, at a polling place at Grace Lutheran Church on Pine Avenue, voters expressed similar sentiments.

“Hopefully something good is coming from all this,” said Yolanda Walker, 58, after casting her ballot for a slate of candidates backed by the city’s police union. She said she does not want the Police Department disbanded and replaced by the Sheriff’s Department. “I want to keep the police in the city,” Walker said.

Along the residential street Grace Lutheran shares with modest but well-kept bungalows, campaign signs for various candidates and coalitions had sprouted in many yards and candidates greeted voters as they made their way down the sidewalk to the church’s education hall that served as a polling place.

A pickup truck parked near the church bore an outsized photo of a slate of three of the candidates along with check marks by their names. News vans competed for parking spots along the normally quiet street.

Candidate Violeta Alvarez, 43, stood with her husband and brother-in-law on a sidewalk near the church, talking to voters -- and reporters.

“I wanted to see the flow of people coming by,” Alvarez said. “It’s exciting. We’re getting a new beginning.” She exchanged greetings with another candidate, Estelle Mota, 58, as she made her way to cast her vote.

Mota, a 41-year Bell resident, said friends encouraged her to run because she has long been active in the city and has kept up with civic meetings. She said she was confident positive change was coming to the city.

"Today is about freedom,” Mota said. “We know that whoever gets elected, we’re going to make a difference.”

Polls in all jurisdictions are open until 8 p.m. The Los Angeles County registrar of voters is conducting the Bell election; all others are being handled by the individual cities. Voters with questions about polling places, results or other election matters should contact their city hall.

Elections originally scheduled for Tuesday in six cities were canceled when not enough candidates filed election papers. The cities are Covina, Cudahy, Gardena, La Verne, Palos Verdes Estates and Paramount.

RELATED:

Bell voters hit the polls to decide city's future

Attorneys blocked from questioning former city attorney

City clerk testifies Rizzo asked her to doctor his contracts

-- Jean Merl

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