BALDWIN PARK — Voters ousted two city councilmen Tuesday in an unexpected victory for residents who forced the recall election because of their opposition to a utility tax and a redevelopment project.
A third councilman, whose seat was left vacant when he died in December but whose name remained on the ballot, was also rejected.
Mayor Jack B. White, Councilman Leo W. King and the late Councilman Robert H. McNeill were rejected in an election that attracted about 2,635 of the city's 15,229 registered voters.
"I'm sorry that this thing had to happen at all," said Loren Lovejoy, secretary of the Baldwin Park Homeowners Group, which helped force the election. "But I think they (the councilmen) have been very ill advised."
It was the first time in the city's history that a majority of the council was recalled from office and only the third time that any council member was removed by recall.
Lovejoy said he was happily surprised by the results, but was discouraged that only about 17% of the eligible voters turned out.
"The real tragedy is that so few people bothered to vote one way or another," Lovejoy said. "I am terribly disappointed in the fact that not even the thousands that signed the petitions (calling for the recall election) came out to vote. Four thousand people signed the petitions, but not all those people voted."
King and White said the low turnout was a major factor in their defeat.
"I feel that there were a lot of people who thought things would go well" and did not vote, King said. "You take people who are afraid of the utility tax. They voted because they were afraid of it. Those that weren't (opposed) stayed home."
A special election will be held on July 14 to fill the three positions. King and White will remain in office until then.
A special election to replace McNeill had already been called for July. Under state law, his name had to appear on the ballot despite his death from cancer in December. According to the unofficial results Tuesday, voters rejected McNeill by only a two-vote margin, 1,284 to 1,282. City Clerk Linda Gair said the result could change when absentee ballots, which number fewer than a dozen, are verified. Regardless of the outcome, his successor will be selected July 14.
Candidates for the three seats can file with the city clerk's office from April 16 to May 7.
King and White could be on the ballot again if they seek different seats. That means King could run only for mayor and White could run only for a councilman's position.
But both said they have not decided what their political futures will be.
White has been on the council since 1978 and was unopposed last year in his bid for a two-year term as mayor. But voters removed White from office Tuesday by a vote of 1,372 to 1,264.
"I'm surprised," White said as the votes were tallied and it became evident that he would lose his seat. "I hadn't really thought about what I might do" if recalled, he said.
"Maybe the people are ready for a change. I think this particular vote was really a tax protest," he said, adding that "there were a few people who were still angry about community redevelopment."
King, whose four-year term was to end next April, has served on the council for 15 years. Residents recalled King by a vote of 1,356 to 1,279.
King blamed the results on the low turnout and what he called an inability to get across the message that the council had recently decided to abolish the utility tax in stages.
"I don't think they (voters) fully understood that the utility tax was being phased out," he said. "I feel that I just didn't explain myself."
The recall campaign began last year when members of Concerned Citizens for Better Government and the Baldwin Park Homeowners Group combined their efforts to seek a recall vote against the three councilmen and a referendum on the controversial Sierra Vista Redevelopment Project.
Plans for the project call for the Community Redevelopment Agency to spend up to $200 million to help finance commercial and industrial development along the San Bernardino Freeway. Voters approved the project in a referendum last November.
Both groups were upset by the utility tax, imposed by the council in August, 1985. City officials contended that the 5% tax on electricity, gas, water and telephone bills was needed to replace $655,000 in lost federal revenue-sharing funds that had been used to help fund the Police Department.
Since it began collecting the tax, the city has raised about $1.4 million and has used the money to increase police salaries.
Voted to Phase Out Tax
The council reduced the tax to 4% in 1986. And in March, the council voted to phase out the tax beginning this month, when it will be decreased to 3%. It will drop to 2% in January, 1988, and be eliminated the following November.
But some residents who voted in Tuesday said the reduction of the tax was not good enough.