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Bill Targets Electoral Process in South Gate

Recall: Secretary of state asks for measure giving county control of special elections.

June 10, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Secretary of State Bill Jones on Sunday announced legislation that would force the city of South Gate to let the county run its special elections for the next two years.

The unusual request for legislative action marks an escalation in the struggle between city leaders and the state's top elections official over who has authority over the electoral process in South Gate, a working-class community in southeast Los Angeles County.

At issue is control of a recall drive launched in October by residents against the city's leading officials: Treasurer Albert Robles and his council majority allies, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, and Councilwoman Maria Benavides. Residents say the officials are corrupt, accusations the officials deny.

City leaders have defied Jones' previous order to hand over its elections, saying he lacks authority. But Jones said he will follow through on his vow to restore public confidence in the city that he describes as having the state's most corrupt electoral process. "The [South Gate] council majority is using the people's resources against them to thwart their constitutionally guaranteed right to recall. This cannot be allowed to stand," Jones said.

In a sudden reversal of policy, city officials are to consider a resolution today authorizing a county takeover.

Moriel declined to comment on his stance, but he criticized Jones' move.

"It's appalling," he said. "What are the rest of cities in the state of California going to say about this? I'm astonished that he would take those steps."

The bill, a proposed special statute that would apply only to South Gate, would require any recall or special election through 2003 to be administered by the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office.

The bill is to be considered Tuesday by the Assembly Committee on Elections and Reapportionment.

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Quick Action Sought

Because Jones is seeking urgency legislation, it would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Jones said the measure has bipartisan support and that he hopes for its passage before lawmakers take their summer recess.

South Gate recall organizers say they have gathered more than 8,000 signatures, far more than the 20% of registered voters required to qualify for the ballot. But the recall has stalled as the courts and Jones sort through a series of countermeasures launched by the council majority.

The most contentious involves the council's move replacing the elected clerk with its own official, Julia Sylva. An attorney, Sylva has links with some of the council majority's political allies, some of whom she has represented. Sylva insists that she is impartial and has not blocked the process.

But Jones accused her of manipulating the recall. In March, he ordered the city to hand over elections to the county or City Clerk Carmen Avalos. But the city refused.

Jones, in addition to seeking legislative action, said he has not ruled out pursuing criminal charges or legal actions against officials.

"It's an unprecedented situation," he said. "I've not seen a similar situation where you have all the divergent problems that you see in South Gate."

Some of the alleged irregularities involve violence.

After a recall organizer served the documents last year, his fleet of plumbing vans were set aflame in what police believe was a politically motivated attack. The crime has not been solved.

Jones' moves have received support from elected officials and authorities outside South Gate, including Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. Recall supporters hope the legislation would finally clear the way for an election.

"It gives us confidence that there won't be any monkey business," said Stephen Kaufman, an attorney representing recall organizers.

Ruvalcaba, who has been among Jones' harshest critics, said she now supports county involvement, even though she voted against it in March.

"I'm sure they can be fair and impartial," she said.

Jones said he was skeptical that the city would follow through. The entire process, he said, has been marred by manipulative tactics.

"They could have done it any time," he said, "but they chose not to. So at this stage we're moving forward."

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