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Council Critics Succeed in Forcing Recall Vote : Politics: No Rezoning Committee gathers 1,500 signatures in effort to oust four in city government.

August 15, 1991|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELL GARDENS — Critics of the City Council have gathered more than enough signatures of registered voters to force a recall election of four of the five council members.

The county registrar of voters last week certified recall petitions against council members Allen Shelby, Letha Viles, Douglas O'Leary and Robert Cunningham.

The council will meet Aug. 26 to set a date for the recall election. City Clerk Leanna Keltner said the election will be held sometime between December and mid-January.

The Bell Gardens No Rezoning Committee, a group of residents, property owners and business people, gathered about 1,500 valid signatures, about 300 more than necessary, Keltner said.

No Rezoning Committee members launched the recall petition campaign earlier this summer because they said the council has ignored residents' concerns about housing, economic development and "citizens' rights."

"All our work, all of our walking paid off," said a jubilant Mary Ann Barron, a committee member. "The next step is to get them out."

The committee's success has sent a chill through supporters of the council because in this city of 42,000, only about 5,000 are registered to vote. Historically, about 30% of those 5,000 turn out at the polls. During the last election in April, 1990, O'Leary was elected with 478 votes.

"This is serious now and people are scared. They are not sure what is going to happen here," said Councilwoman Rosa Hernandez, the fifth member who was not targeted for recall but has since drawn increasing criticism from council opponents.

Certification of the petitions was a blow to the four targeted council members. Viles, O'Leary and Cunningham have said that they never expected the committee to gather the necessary number of signatures.

"I'm disappointed that so many people who do not know me, who do not know anything about the issue, who don't even know what a recall is, signed the petition," Viles said. "I look around and I wonder, 'Who are those 1,247 people who felt it was wise to take me out of office?' "

The committee's successful effort sets the stage for a bitter tug-of-war for residents' support. Already Shelby, Viles and O'Leary have formed a group, called the Committee to Better Our Neighborhoods, that has sent out mailers labeling their opposition "convicted criminals and slumlords."

In response, the No Rezoning Committee sent out a six-page, single-spaced letter outlining what it believes is a plan by the council to drive down property values through zoning, drive residents from the city, and then buy the property.

Even taciturn Councilman Cunningham, who had refused to campaign against the petition effort, has been riled.

"I'm going to go out and combat it," he said. "I don't think I ought to be recalled. I think it is pure foolishness on their part. I don't know what they are trying to prove."

Hernandez, Viles, O'Leary, Cunningham and City Manager Claude Booker said they had heard complaints that the No Rezoning Committee had used questionable tactics to persuade some residents into signing petitions.

"I think that they intimidated a lot of people," O'Leary said. "It's easy to get signatures, but it will be another story when it's time for the residents to go out and vote."

Marie Chacon, a No Rezoning Committee member, denied that the group had pressured anyone to sign. "People were coming to us to sign it," she said.

The No Rezoning Committee decided to seek the recall of four council members after several unsuccessful attempts to challenge a zoning law that would control the number of homes that can be built on a lot. No Rezoning Committee members have said such a sweeping zoning law would eventually drive low-income, mostly Latino residents from the city--a contention that city officials have dismissed as "absurd."

No Rezoning Committee members also have accused the council of being insensitive to the needs of its Latino community. Almost 90% of Bell Gardens residents are Latino. The city staff is largely Anglo, and until last April, the council was all-Anglo.

Council members have acknowledged that they have been slow to react to the demographic changes that have transformed their town, but they say they are now working on improving their relationship with the Latino community. In April, they appointed the first Latino, Hernandez, to the council, and recently approved spending $100,000 to establish programs that they say will establish better communication with the community.

No Rezoning Committee members have not been swayed by the council's efforts. "I say they (council members) are a day late and a dollar short," said Rudy Garcia, director of the Willie C. Velasquez Center--a League of United Latin American Citizens office. "They can forget it now."

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