Vernon's changes to election rules spark concern from registrar
Vernon officials this week took the highly unusual step of changing the city’s election rules during the middle of a disputed City Council race in a move that L.A. County’s Registrar of Voters said could “undermine the election process.”
The City Council vote comes after the registrar’s office refused a request by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce to throw out 10 ballots in the June 5 council race that would have decided the winner. The registrar ruled that there was not enough evidence to show the ballots had been illegally cast. Its final count gave candidate Reno Bellamy a 34-30 victory.
But instead of certifying that result, Vernon’s council voted for the city to conduct its own hearing on the election challenges. A majority on the council had supported Bellamy’s opponent, Luz Martinez, who has worked as a secretary to Vernon’s city administrator.
Dean Logan, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, said he was surprised to see Vernon take such an action, especially given the city’s professed efforts to reform itself after a series of public corruption scandals.
“The whole idea of the city moving toward an open and transparent election process was to be consistent ... and this is arguably not consistent,” Logan said.
Fred MacFarlane, a Vernon spokesman, said the city’s decision was motivated by its desire to hold an open hearing on the ballot challenges “and remove all doubt over who is the proper elected candidate.” The registrar’s office reviewed only written evidence submitted by the Chamber of Commerce, MacFarlane said.
He confirmed that a hearing would be held before the election was finalized, but he was not sure of a date. The city is now looking to hire a “hearing officer” –- likely a retired judge -- who will consider the Chamber of Commerce’s challenges, he said.
The Chamber of Commerce has argued that Vernon’s voting rolls were stacked with people who did not actually live there. The organization has presented evidence ranging from property and cellphone records to reports from private investigators.
Bellamy, however, maintains the individuals are lawful voters. He said he has been “disgusted” by the city government’s handling of the election.
“To me, it’s unbelievable that we are in America and they are able to use the law to take control of what’s supposed to be a democracy,” he said. “They are making up the rules as they go.”
The election controversy comes during a tumultuous time in Vernon, an industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles that has more than 1,800 businesses but only about 100 residents.
Last month, the California state auditor released a lengthy report on financial issues in the city government, and called for Vernon to replace some of its top officials. The city has projected a $16-million deficit for next year, and some local business leaders have suggested that the city consider bankruptcy to get out of its bad investments.
On the same day the audit was released, Eric T. Fresch, a former top Vernon administrator, was found dead at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay Area. Investigators have not yet announced the cause of his death.
-- Sam Allen
Photo: The view of downtown Los Angeles' skyline from Vernon. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times