EL MONTE — Mobile home park residents eked out a hard-fought victory over landlords Tuesday as voters affirmed a city ordinance that provides binding arbitration in rent disputes involving the city's four largest parks.
The ordinance was put to a vote after the landlords gathered enough signatures in a petition drive against the measure in December to force the referendum. Tuesday's vote capped a contentious campaign that was described by some as the dirtiest to hit the city in years.
Proposition A was approved by a vote of 4,108 to 3,688, or 52.7% to 47.3%. Worried supporters of the ordinance saw an early 2-to-1 lead dwindle to less than 4% before the final tally put the ordinance over the top.
"I'll take a 1% victory," said Donald E. Smith, a leader of the mobile home park residents group that backed the ordinance. "Anything over 51% is gravy as far as I'm concerned. But (the margin) did get our attention."
Harvey Englander, a political consultant hired by landlords to defeat the ordinance, said the vote did not provide a mandate for the rent ordinance, and added that his organization will try to get an initiative on the November ballot that would repeal the ordinance in favor of a landlord-sponsored rent subsidy plan.
"The vote yesterday was certainly not a mandate," he said. "It shows very clearly that people have some real questions and concerns."
Englander said his organization has acquired about one-fourth of the signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the next election. "We said win or lose (in the June election), we would move ahead on our initiative."
Tuesday's referendum could have voided city Ordinance 2216, which provides a two-step system of arbitration in rent and service disputes between residents and owners in parks of 60 or more spaces.
The ordinance, which was passed in December but did not go into effect pending the outcome of the referendum, creates a rent review commission that has the final say if a committee of park owners and residents cannot reconcile their disputes.
The five-member commission will consist of two residents, two park owners and an outside mediator to be appointed by the city if the other four commissioners cannot agree on the fifth member.
Although the ordinance covers four mobile home parks, the battle was waged primarily between the owners and residents of the 421-space Brookside Mobile Home County Club, the city's largest park. The ordinance also covers the 175-space Daleview Mobile Home Estates, the 104-space Santa Fe Mobile Home Park and the 76-space El Rovia Trailer Village.
The El Monte Park Owners Committee, a group organized by Brookside owners Jeffrey Kaplan and Tom Tatum to defeat the ordinance, hired Englander's Newport Beach firm, Campaign Management Inc., to mount the opposition. The residents countered by hiring political consulting firm of Jill Barad & Associates of Sherman Oaks.
In defeating the challenge, the residents overcame a well-financed campaign by Tatum and Kaplan that featured numerous mailers, direct phone solicitations of voters and highly visible signs throughout the city.
The landlords spent $57,780 and the residents spent $12,840 through mid-May, according to campaign disclosure statements.
Councilman Ernest Gutierrez, one of four council members who supported the residents, said the opponents tried to bribe and bully the city's electorate.
"It was big money versus no money," he said. "This has been one of the dirtiest campaigns I've encountered, and I've been in politics for a long time."
Charges of dirty politics fueled the heated election, with residents protesting what they called harassment by Brookside management and opponents contending that the park residents were trying to sully the opposition with accusations of election fraud.
Last month, the district attorney's office began investigating the petition process that qualified the proposition for the ballot. Residents alleged that three petition circulators were not residents of El Monte, a violation of the state Election Code.
Investigators said criminal charges could be filed against petitioners who listed false addresses, but added that such action would not affect the outcome of the election.
Before the election, full-page ads in local newspapers portrayed Smith as a wealthy businessman trying to get Brookside and the city to lower his rent. The ads, which were paid for by the park owners committee, noted that Smith is self-employed; that his wife, Mary Smith, is an El Monte code enforcement officer who makes $30,660 annually, and that Smith drives a Mercedes-Benz.
"If you believe that Don Smith deserves a free ride on his rent, you should consider voting yes on Prop. A," the ad stated. "However. . . . If you believe that rent control is for the needy . . . not the greedy . . . be sure to vote no on Prop. A election day."