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LOS ANGELES COUNTY ELECTIONS

Election Winners Pledge to Clean Up Cities

Council members in scandal-scarred Carson and South Gate say they'll rebuild trust.

March 06, 2003|Jean Merl and Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writers

Election victors in corruption-plagued South Gate and Carson on Wednesday renewed promises to help heal their cities.

Voters there were among those who went to the polls in 49 cities and in five school or community college districts in Los Angeles County on Tuesday.

"Our goal is to try to bring respectability back to the budget and be able to continue services," said Henry Gonzalez, South Gate vice mayor and top council vote-getter. The city's reform-minded council majority -- forged in a recall election less than two months ago -- handily prevailed in Tuesday's regular balloting despite being targeted in a last-minute blitz of nasty campaign mail.

In the largely Latino city of 96,000 in southeast Los Angeles County, the election stakes were especially high, as the balloting was widely viewed as a referendum on the new council majority and its plans to rescue the city from near-bankruptcy and allegations of corruption.

In addition to reelecting Gonzalez, voters returned council members Maria Davila and Gregory Martinez to the posts they had won in the Jan. 28 recall, when City Treasurer Albert Robles and his three council allies were ousted.

In recent weeks, the city has frozen spending, eliminated the community services department and laid off more than 120 employees. The city has a $28-million budget.

"We're top-heavy," Gonzalez said Wednesday, promising still more cuts from a work force that climbed from 350 to 570 during the Robles coalition's tenure. The city is undergoing an audit and is attempting to cut back on legal fees; it also has placed several officials hired by former leaders on administrative leave.

Tuesday's elections saw more of the vicious personal attacks that had marked city proceedings during the previous administration. In one anonymous attack mailer, Gonzalez was identified as a "senile, dirty old man." It also said former Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, who was ousted in January, slugged him during a council meeting because he had groped her.

Gonzalez, who was met with hugs at his campaign victory party Tuesday night, said he thinks the mailers backfired.

"People were angry and disgusted by them" and suspected they were the work of those allied with the recalled officials, Gonzalez said.

Some in South Gate said they hope the mailers' failure to sway voters signals an end to the city's vicious politics.

"I think that we've opened up the voters' eyes to see past lies," Councilman Martinez said. "The city is fed up with this kind of politicking.

"It's a new day."

In Carson, the winners of two council seats -- left empty last year when their occupants resigned and pleaded guilty to criminal charges -- pledged to help bring honest government to the South Bay city of nearly 90,000.

"The bottom line is the message is cleaning up the City Hall," said middle school teacher Elito Santarina, who, making his third run for office, garnered the most votes of the 18 candidates on the ballot. "Leadership is nothing without integrity."

The city was rocked last year when authorities charged 10 people, including four present or past council members, in a wide-ranging corruption probe allegedly involving bribes for lucrative city contracts.

Mayor Daryl Sweeney, who has two years remaining in his term, was among those indicted and was portrayed as investigators' main target, but he has insisted he is innocent and will keep his office.

Administrative assistant Julie Ruiz Raber, a city commissioner who narrowly captured the second seat, said she wants to move the city forward.

"We must not forget" the past, Raber said, "but we must not dwell" on it either.

The races in the two cities topped a smorgasbord of election day decisions for voters in dozens of cities and school districts around Los Angeles County. Among the results:

* A new, teachers union-backed majority was elected to the school board in Redondo Beach. The union, angry about protracted contract negotiations and unhappy with the superintendent, joined disgruntled parents to oust two board members and fill a vacancy with their slate: Arlene Staich, Jane Diehl and Carl Clark.

* Increases in the hotel bed tax (Measure B) and in the business license tax (Measure C) were approved in West Hollywood. The 1% hotel tax increase brings West Hollywood in line with the 14% rates charged in L.A. and Beverly Hills, while the voter-approved adjustments in the business license tax are expected to bring an additional $120,000 a year to city coffers.

* Continued sales of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks by charitable organizations in El Monte and Gardena were approved. El Monte voters strongly turned down Measure F, which would have banned such sales, while Gardena voters approved Measure A, which called for the city to continue to allow the controversial fireworks stands, big money-makers for nonprofit groups in the city.

* Voters gave thumbs down to a proposal to hold all elections by mail for the city of Pasadena and the Pasadena Unified School District. Voters returned Mayor Bill Bogaard to office by a margin of 85% to challenger Philip Koebel's 15%.

With 500 ballots left to be counted, Jennifer Rodriguez and Pedro Aceituno held strong leads in Bell Gardens, more than likely ousting the two City Council incumbents, Ramiro Morales and Rudy Garcia. Final election results are expected next week.

*

Times staff writer Joy L. Woodson contributed to this report.

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