Fraud allegations, eviction threats color Vernon elections
Vernon’s first competitive elections in years took more bizarre twists this week when the L.A. County registrar's office announced that it would uphold disputed ballots that city officials had ruled were fraudulently cast and the city moved to evict some of the voters in question.
At a meeting Thursday, the Vernon Housing Commission gave city staff the approval to remove residents at four households if they were determined to be in violation of the city’s new housing policies.
The decision comes after two City Council races were thrown into chaos by claims of widespread voter fraud. Only about 60 people cast ballots in the elections. Both contests remain under challenge, as city and county officials have disagreed over which votes should be counted.
“It’s complete craziness down here,” said Reno Bellamy, a council candidate and Housing Commission member whose race will be decided based on how many of the contested ballots are ultimately counted.
Eric Gustafson, chairman of the Housing Commission, said the eviction measure was not motivated by the election but rather by complaints from other residents. He said he was caught off guard when some people showed up at the commission’s meeting and accused the city of trying to kick out voters who didn’t support candidates backed by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce.
“The commission is simply doing its job. We had complaints from residents; we were investigating those complaints,” said Gustafson, a local businessman and member of the chamber. “I don’t see this as a political situation.”
But former Councilman Daniel Newmire, who has sued the city over its handling of the April election, in which he ran, said the action was retribution.
“The city’s handpicking their voters; they’re taking away people’s rights to vote,” Newmire said. “This is exactly what they were accused of doing" by state legislators.
Vernon held elections in April and June. They were viewed as key milestones in its reform process. The city, which has 1,800 businesses but just 100 residents, was nearly disincorporated in the Legislature last year after a series of public corruption scandals. Critics have argued that a lack of open elections in the city has allowed it to be run as a fiefdom by a small group of people.
Jaime Regalado, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A., said the turmoil shows that Vernon has a long way to go in its reform effort.
“It’s not exactly the same system, but to me it seems the end game hasn’t really changed much at all,” Regalado said. “It’s entrenched interests trying to protect the status quo.”
The chamber was actively involved in both campaigns, with members walking door-to-door in support of candidates Michael Ybarra and Luz Martinez.
Ybarra ran against Newmire, while Martinez faced Bellamy, an ally of Newmire’s who moved into the city in 2010.
The chamber has labeled Newmire and Bellamy part of the “old guard” responsible for Vernon’s troubled past. Newmire, meanwhile, says the chamber has aligned itself with a group of private attorneys who are trying to seize control of City Hall.
On April 10, the first election night, an attorney for the chamber argued that six ballots came from voters who did not live in Vernon. The city agreed and refused to count their votes. Two other ballots were disqualified by the city clerk because of signature issues.
Ybarra, the chamber’s candidate, went on to win by a seven-vote margin. Newmire has since sued the city over its handling of the ballots and is demanding a recount.
All six of the voters whose ballots were tossed out in the April race voted again this month. The chamber once again challenged the ballots, along with those of four new voters who it claimed did not really live in Vernon. This time, the challenges were rejected by the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk, which ruled that there was insufficient evidence to dismiss the votes.
The decision is likely to swing the race in favor of Bellamy, Newmire’s ally, who currently trails Martinez by just three votes. He said most if not all of the challenged ballots came from his supporters.
But eight of those people are registered at city-owned housing units now targeted for evictions. Bellamy, the lone commissioner to vote against the eviction proposal, said Ybarra was behind the action.
“The Ybarras are out of control,” he said. “They want to take over the city.”
Ybarra did not respond to a request for comment. But Fred MacFarlane, a spokesman for Vernon, said all of the residents targeted by the Housing Commission will have the opportunity to prove they live in Vernon and are in compliance with the terms of their leases.
“They’re going to have an opportunity to make their case,” he said. “The action won’t result in immediate eviction.”
-- Sam Allen