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Vernon election mired in fraud allegations

April 10, 2012 |  9:58 pm

Vernon, California
The first competitive election in the city of Vernon in years was thrown into chaos late Tuesday amid accusations of voter fraud before officials could even begin counting the ballots.

A city canvassing board was set to tally the 53 ballots cast in the election at 8 p.m., when an attorney representing the Chamber of Commerce came forward to say he wanted to present evidence that seven voters didn’t actually live in the city.

The board decided to hold a hearing on the allegations before counting the ballots, and it’s unclear when the winner of the race for one council seat will be named. An attorney for the city said the outcome could be in doubt for days because the candidates could challenge the outcome.

In one case, the chamber claimed voter Gary Sabara Jr. actually lived in Buena Park. The attorney presented evidence gathered by a private investigator, including his Facebook page and an Orange County Register article that listed him as a resident of Buena Park.

Sabara, who was at the meeting awaiting the vote count, told the board he did not have a permanent residence and that he lives at several locations. “I come and go” from a house of a friend in Vernon, Sabara said. “Not having a whole lot of money, it's a gas situation.”

As the evening wore on, the board took other testimony about other voters the chamber had questioned.

Allegations of voter fraud swirled during the campaign. Last year, Vernon had 62 registered voters, according to a city report. That number rose by almost 20% by election day, when there were 74 registered voters.

Some in Vernon had hoped the election would be another step in reforming the city’s reputation sullied by a series of municipal corruption scandals.

Vernon came under fire in Sacramento last year when state lawmakers argued that it wasn’t a real city and tried to dissolve it. The city survived the unprecedented disincorporation effort after brokering a reform plan with state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), which called for Vernon to move toward more open elections.

Most of Vernon’s residents live in homes and apartments owned by the city and many have connections to City Hall. For decades, the arrangement led critics to charge that Vernon’s leaders could handpick their voters.

The race this spring was viewed as the first competitive City Council election in Vernon’s recent history and a key milestone in the reform process.

In February, the city held its “first ever” candidates night, where challenger Michael Ybarra and incumbent Daniel Newmire spoke to a group that included about 15 residents. Over the following two months, volunteers from the Chamber of Commerce canvassed door to door, and candidates distributed brief letters to residents.


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Photo: Vernon is a mostly industrial city, with few homes. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times