Inglewood City Councilman Ervin (Tony) Thomas and City Atty. Howard Rosten have rejected demands that Thomas vacate his seat because of a judge's decision to annul his election to the council.
Garland Hardeman, Thomas' opponent in the June 16 runoff election, won a three-month legal battle last week when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leon Savitch invalidated Thomas' victory. Ruling on Hardeman's lawsuit that charged numerous Election Code violations, Savitch ordered a new election but did not set a date. He said he would issue a written ruling later.
Debate at Tuesday's tense City Council meeting centered on whether the judge's statement constituted a ruling and whether Thomas should step down immediately.
Election law permits Thomas to remain in office if he appeals within 10 days of the judge's ruling. Both Rosten and Thomas' lawyer are awaiting the written decision before deciding whether to appeal.
Thomas can act as councilman, Rosten told the council, because Savitch termed his oral ruling "tentative." Until the judge issues a written opinion next week, "nothing has happened," Rosten said.
But Councilman Anthony Scardenzan said in an interview that Thomas' participation on the council could create legal problems for the city and is not in the city's best interests. Hardeman and several of his supporters told the council that Thomas should step down immediately.
"As of Friday of last week, Thomas should not be on the council," said Hardeman, a Los Angeles police officer.
"You should hide your heads in shame," longtime city activist and businessman Ken Gossett told Thomas and his chief ally, Mayor Edward Vincent. "Mr. Thomas shouldn't be here. Hide your heads and let the city go about honest business."
Witnesses testified during a six-day trial in downtown Los Angeles that Vincent and other Thomas supporters pressured them to cast absentee ballots for Thomas. In some cases, according to testimony, the Thomas supporters punched absentee ballots for voters and instructed them to sign the ballots of family members. Evidence also showed voters registering at non-existent residences and forgeries of ballot signatures.
Hardeman won about 70% of the votes cast at polling places, but lost the election when Thomas got an overwhelming majority of absentee votes.
Thomas responded to calls for his ouster with a statement urging the city to fight Savitch's ruling, which he termed a decision "made by a municipality outside of Inglewood."
That statement was met with derision from Hardeman, who said: "That's a Superior Court judge. He makes decisions that affect Inglewood. If Mr. Thomas believes the judge represents another city, that shows the level of incompetence he has brought to the council."
Hardeman chastised Rosten for "grossly misrepresenting" the judge's ruling.
"The election was annulled and set aside," Hardeman said. "That ruling is permanent. Go back and read your law books."
Animosity between Hardeman and Rosten was apparent during the trial and could create problems for Rosten if Hardeman becomes a councilman. Hardeman said in an interview that "if (Rosten) is consistently wrong when he issues an opinion, then he should be replaced."
Hardeman and his supporters at the council meeting also blasted Vincent, saying trial testimony proved that he committed illegal acts during the Thomas campaign. Hardeman called for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to step up its criminal investigation of his charges, which began in July.
A spokesman for the district attorney's office said last week that investigators had interviewed several witnesses and would interview more.
The ruling on Thomas is the latest of a series of political blows to Vincent. After voters defeated both an initiative to raise his salary and several candidates he endorsed, the mayor now faces the possibility of losing his only solid ally on the council.
The mayor said the city will decide on Thomas' status when the judge's ruling "becomes clear."
Saying he hoped his critics represent a "small minority," Vincent added: "I think things are going well in Inglewood. Maybe too well. Maybe people want disruption and confusion. I'm quite sure the system will prevail. If somebody did something wrong, they should be prosecuted."
Rosten predicted in an interview that, because Savitch did not declare Hardeman the winner of the election as the suit requested, the written opinion will exonerate Vincent and Thomas of wrongdoing. If that occurs and Savitch annuls the election based on irregularities rather than illegalities, the city would have more grounds for an appeal, Rosten said.
Hardeman lawyer Mark Borenstein, meanwhile, said he may repeat his request that Savitch declare Hardeman the new 4th District councilman. He also questioned Thomas' right to act as councilman because of election laws requiring quick implementation of a court ruling, whether oral or written.