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Kelly Thomas beating at center of Fullerton recall election

June 5, 2012 | 10:37 am

Fullerton recall
Fullerton residents will vote Tuesday on the recall of three City Council members who came under fire after the death of a local homeless man, Kelly Thomas, following a violent encounter with six police officers.

Council members Dick Jones, Pat McKinley and Don Bankhead face recall. They drew residents' anger over perceptions that they failed to act aggressively or communicate to the public in the aftermath of Thomas' death. Thirteen candidates, from across the political spectrum, are running to replace them.

The fatal encounter between the mentally ill homeless man and six police officers, captured on a surveillance video that is now a centerpiece of the criminal case against two of the policemen, has thrown a long shadow over the town's leadership and polarized residents.

There have been protests, public memorials, and long and angry council meetings at which activists wear T-shirts emblazoned with Thomas' image.

"It's gotten more people energized and involved in city politics than any other issue before," said Joel Beers, 45, manager at the Back Alley, a bar downtown.

The recall campaign has been characterized by nasty rhetoric on both sides.

The recall opponents characterize the effort as a power grab by Tony Bushala, a politically active, libertarian-leaning local businessman who runs the Fullerton's Future blog and has bankrolled the recall campaign, pouring in more than $200,000 of his own money. They say that if Bushala's allies get into office, City Hall will be set up for massive layoffs and cutbacks similar to what occurred in Costa Mesa.

McKinley, who served as Fullerton's police chief for 16 years, said the council did all it could in the aftermath of the Thomas incident, and the officers, "all of them that did anything wrong," have been disciplined.

"The rest is all just a Bushala thing. He was looking for some incident to take on the City Council and he found his incident," McKinley said. "He wants to be king."

The recall proponents concede that they wanted to get rid of the council majority long before the Thomas beating, but reject the idea that Bushala is exploiting the homeless man's death.

"I think the real question is, 'Why didn't the recall targets take a leadership role when a mentally ill homeless man was murdered by members of their police force?'" Bushala said in an email response.

Residents echo the arguments of both sides. At the Mulberry Street Ristorante downtown, Judi Perez, 47, and Martha Aguilar, 48, said they support the recall because the Kelly Thomas case and the city's response made them embrarassed for their town.

"We don't want Fullerton to be known that way," Aguilar said.

In the same restaurant, Jack DeNault, 64, said he opposes the recall: “I think it is really sad that you have a lot of well-meaning people that have hopped on the bandwagon with a self-interested developer.”

Ron Thomas, who has been a visible figure in Fullerton since his son's death, said he supports the recall because of the "inappropriate inaction" after his son's death but is steering clear of the political infighting. "All the other things, not my concern — don't care," he said.

The recall may not be the end of the political turmoil. Three more council seats -- including one of those facing recall -- will be up for election in November.

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-- Abby Sewell

Photo: A "John and Ken Show" fan holds a Fullerton City Council member recall paper and an autographed photo of the conservative talk radio duo as the pair rallied people to sign recall petitions last October. Credit:  Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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