LOS NIETOS — School board seats on the smallest district in Southeast Los Angeles County have become a hot property, with three Huntington Park residents moving to Los Nietos to run for the board and three others forming a coalition to fight them.
Alan Kartsman, Louie Aragon and Louis Manzano all declared a house on Slauson Avenue as their legal residence when they filed to run last summer for the Los Nietos School District board. All moved from Huntington Park, where two ran for the City Council last year.
The situation has left school officials and residents puzzled about why their district, which pays board members no salary and has only four schools, would become the object of such a power struggle.
"With three (of five) seats open and running on a slate, it's possible they could in fact take over the board," said Los Nietos Supt. Terry Giboney. "The issue of motivation has been a question on the minds of many people."
Los Nietos board member Leonard Munoz was more direct. "They're carpetbaggers trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the voters in this district," Munoz said.
Kartsman dismisses such charges.
"Most people can see that's plain mudslinging," Kartsman said. "I've decided to make my permanent home in the Los Nietos district. I have no plans to do anything else."
Aragon, Manzano and Louis F. Sanchez are challenging incumbents Sylvia Orona and Adeline (Addie) Rocha for two seats with four-year terms, while Kartsman and C. Renee Frazier are running for a two-year term created earlier this year by the resignation of a board member.
Frazier said the Kartsman coalition is trying to take advantage of voter apathy. Fewer than 500 people cast ballots in the last election in the district, which serves part of Santa Fe Springs, a corner of west Whittier and the unincorporated Los Nietos area. The district has an enrollment of 1,952 students, 87% Latino.
"The community is upset--they don't know what their motives are, they don't know what their platforms are," Frazier said. "On the other hand, we do have a lot of apathy and I'm afraid a lot of people might not be aware of the circumstances."
Kartsman, Aragon and Manzano did not attend a candidate's forum this month, instead concentrating on door-to-door campaigning in which they have handed out absentee ballot forms along with their literature.
Kartsman and Aragon are not new to politics. Kartsman has run unsuccessfully twice for the Huntington Park City Council, most recently last year with Aragon as a running mate. Kartsman and Aragon used the absentee ballot strategy in that election. Each received about 25% of his votes from absentee ballots, according to figures provided by Huntington Park City Clerk Marilyn Boyette.
The number of absentee ballots cast in that election was the most ever in Huntington Park history, and about three times as many as in the previous election, Boyette said.
"It's a new political tool and it's a frightening one because people have been coerced into doing things at their front door," said Councilman Jim Roberts of Huntington Park.
The law on absentee ballots says that voters must be the ones who mail the ballot request or deliver it to the registrar's office. Giboney said he is worried that some residents may be unaware of that provision and turn the ballots over to the candidates. "I urge all voters to mail the ballots themselves," he said.
Kartsman said soliciting the absentee vote is "nothing new," adding that negative publicity about his campaign has come from other candidates and political foes in Huntington Park. Kartsman denied that he had collected any ballots.
His opponents also have questioned whether Kartsman, Aragon and Manzano are legal residents. But according to the election code, 29 days at one address and declaring an intent to remain in the district are enough to establish residency.
If elected, Kartsman said he would work to "upgrade the community."
"I didn't like what was going on. It's going downhill," he said, calling for more community participation and support. He said he did not attend the candidate's forum because he had to take his father to the hospital. Kartsman has been attending school board meetings for the past year, Giboney said.
Kartsman, 32, a substitute teacher and a vocal critic of Huntington Park politics, said he was driven from that city by threats from residents and the police.
After he lost the Huntington Park City Council race last year, Kartsman was behind an unsuccessful recall drive against two councilmen. A woman who said she worked for Kartsman and collected signatures for the recall pleaded guilty and was fined for misrepresenting the petition as one opposing toxic waste.