As Election Day approaches on March 5, political sparring in Redondo Beach is beginning to involve some pointed jabs.
A series of charges and countercharges led to an acrimonious debate in City Council chambers Tuesday night, when Mayor Brad Parton unsuccessfully tried to force City Clerk John L. Oliver to step aside as this year's elections officer, accusing him of showing favoritism toward a City Council candidate.
Oliver, acknowledging that he has a personal preference but noting that he has not endorsed a candidate, refused to give up his duties.
The motion to remove Oliver was tabled after 45 minutes of argument, but not before Councilwoman Barbara J. Doerr accused Parton of using stationery nearly identical to city letterhead to send out an endorsement of his favorite candidate.
The origins of the controversy involve three of the five candidates for the council's District 5 seat. Central among the players are candidate Michael Herman, who has been endorsed by Parton; Bruce Unruh, who was actively supported by Oliver four years ago during an unsuccessful bid for city treasurer, and Robe Richester, who asked Oliver to look into Herman's voter registration records.
While recently studying voter sign-in sheets from the district's election four years ago, Richester noticed that Herman had written down a business address in the space where voters are supposed to list their home address. Richester took the sheets to Oliver and asked him to determine whether Herman had violated any state laws.
Oliver gathered records from the county registrar-recorder's office showing that Herman, who had been registered at an apartment in Hermosa Beach, switched his registration in 1982 to Bay Beer Distributors on Santa Fe Avenue in Redondo Beach. The documents show that Herman registered again at that address in 1987, finally re-registering at his Mathews Avenue condominium in 1989.
Herman said in an interview last week that he first registered at Bay Beer Distributors because he was temporarily living on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and was planning to move to Redondo Beach. Because the company was located in the same precinct as the apartment he was renting on Bataan Road in Redondo Beach, he said, he did not believe he was violating the law by continuing to use the business address.
He said he moved to the Mathews Avenue condominium in 1986 and switched his registration to his home address after he became active on the city's general plan advisory committee.
But, noting that voter registration applications specifically call for listing a residential address under penalty of perjury, Oliver last week said he planned to forward the records to the district attorney's office for review.
City observers say that decision infuriated Parton, who shortly afterward asked the city clerk's staff to send out notices of a special Tuesday council meeting to discuss whether Oliver should continue as elections officer.
Saying the meeting was not an emergency issue, Oliver told Parton to put the item on a future agenda and ordered his staff not to send out the special meeting notice. Parton then asked the city attorney to handle the notification for him.
On Tuesday, Parton said he convened the meeting because of growing rumors that Oliver, who is running unopposed for a new term as city clerk, also was actively supporting Unruh.
He denied that he called the meeting to retaliate for Oliver's action against Herman.
"I really thought that (Oliver) had an obvious conflict of interest that should be addressed," Parton said. "My feeling is it would be proper to give the . . . control of the (ballot) counting over to the secretary of state so there would be no question as to the integrity of the election."
Oliver, however, refused to step down from his post, noting that a hired consultant handles the actual ballot count while a deputy city clerk handles the day-to-day details of the election.
"It's better for me to keep somewhat of an arm's length from the actual election process, and I have done so," Oliver said. "I was elected by the voters to be the city clerk and the city's elections officer. I intend to continue performing those functions."
Oliver also refused the council's request that he refrain from actively supporting any particular candidate.
"You're asking me to give up my constitutional rights . . . to have an opinion or to give my support to any person I choose," he said.
During the hearing, Councilwoman Doerr criticized Parton for being overly concerned about how Oliver's actions appear to the voters.
"What about your appearance of impropriety in releasing this (endorsement) letter on what certainly appears to be city stationery?" Doerr asked.
Parton insisted that the letter was legal because he had removed the city's seal from it and added the words "Not printed or mailed at taxpayer expense." The letterhead still bears the words "City of Redondo Beach, California," in bold block letters, with the City Hall address and telephone number alongside.
Herman sent the endorsement letter about three weeks ago to about 200 voters who had previously supported the mayor, Parton said.
"I send out letters every day on city stationery expressing my opinion to people, and that has the city seal on it and everything," Parton said in an interview Wednesday.
"People send these kinds of endorsement letters out all the time. I get letters all the time from our assemblymen . . . endorsing somebody," he said. "I don't think it's unusual at all."
In the face of growing council opposition Tuesday night, Parton said he thought it best to drop his request that Oliver step aside.
"I'm not going to get involved in any mudslinging," he said. "I think we've got five good candidates out there running and I just hope that the rest of this is just a good, clean campaign."