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Be Vigilant, South Gate

January 31, 2003

Jaime Villafuerte, a recent Mexican immigrant, got a firsthand lesson in the workings of U.S. democracy this week when South Gate voters turned out to overwhelmingly recall a slate of elected officials who had scandalously mismanaged the city. He learned "that people can change things," in the words of his teacher at South Gate Adult School, Vita Sheremetiev.

Villafuerte took personal umbrage at the way the newly ousted officials tried to hang on to power through blatant political patronage and other discredited tactics he remembered from Mexico. That kind of politics is outdated in Mexico now, and Villafuerte considered it an embarrassment to his new hometown. But Villafuerte and his fellow students will learn an even more valuable lesson going forward, as South Gate's new council majority members try to repair the damage done by their predecessors. They will learn that although elections are important, active citizenship requires constant attention to the details of governance and public decision-making.

First, South Gate's electorate must not forget the regular city election in March. No doubt anticipating their ouster, three of the four recalled officials put their names on the March ballot as council candidates. They include South Gate's notorious former treasurer, Albert Robles. He still holds the job of assistant city manager and has shown a penchant for sneak attacks.

In the meantime, the state and county officials who helped oversee the recall election must keep a close watch on the transition. Outraged South Gate residents invited California's secretary of state and Los Angeles County's registrar-recorder's office into the city because they didn't trust Robles and his crew -- who still control many of the city's key offices -- to conduct an honest vote.

There is no reason to assume they will be more trustworthy in handing over what remains of a city treasury already on the edge of bankruptcy. So outside officials must be prepared to hit the recalled officials with the full force of law should their departure be accompanied by more deplorable shenanigans.

An appalling example of what must now be feared took place as the polls were closing Tuesday. As Robles and his allies sensed the size of their impending defeat, Mayor Xochitl Rubalcava ordered city employees to write half a million dollars worth of checks to pay off the attorneys and vendors whom Robles' cadre had favored with political largess.

For the good citizens of South Gate to remain vigilant is not just a matter of good government. It may be a matter of their small city's survival.

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