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Vernon's Inaction on Votes Stumps Experts

The decision to not count ballots in council race could be a breach of election rules, observers say. City officials refuse to comment.

April 13, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

The ballots in Vernon's first contested election in 25 years remained locked at City Hall on Wednesday as the already bizarre election reached strange new heights.

Election experts and veteran city clerks described the small industrial city's decision to not count the ballots in the City Council race -- pending resolution of legal disputes -- as unprecedented. Critics, meanwhile, said it was the latest troubling sign that the election might be tainted.

"I've never heard of not counting ballots you have on hand," said Deborah Wright, executive liaison to the Los Angeles County registrar. "But you know, Vernon kind of keeps falling into this category of behavior you just don't find legal citations for. I don't suppose it's illegal, but it's very, very strange."

But Angelina Reyes, city clerk in Hayward, Calif., and other cities for more than 20 years, said she believes the city was required to immediately count ballots unless it published a notice of the delay beforehand.

"Usually you go to the election code as the bible, and it says as soon as the polls close, the semi-official count must begin," Reyes said. "Did they publish a notice [that] they were not going to count the ballots? City clerks are supposed to be nonpartisan and neutral."

The challengers immediately called for a federal investigation into the election, suggesting that the delay occurred because the three incumbents who have been in office for as long as 50 years worried that they might lose.

The city clerk, and other city officials declined to comment Wednesday.

The decision by Vernon City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst Jr. came as a surprise because the city had argued in court Tuesday that the election should proceed as planned, despite an effort by the challengers to halt the counting of the ballots and have voting monitored by the county. The judge sided with the city and said the election should go forward.

But on Tuesday night, Malkenhorst cited several lawsuits related to the disputed election in announcing that he would not count the ballots.

"I have determined that no ballots should be opened tonight," he said, "due to the fact that there is existing litigation to cancel the voter registration of 73 defendants named in three lawsuits."

Malkenhorst indicated that the ballots might not be counted until all the legal actions were resolved -- which could take months.

Election experts said that simply placing the ballots aside -- even as the vote is being challenged in court -- doesn't make sense.

"You would think they would count them and see if there's a successful challenge," said Verna Rollinger, who before retiring was city clerk in Laguna Beach for nearly 30 years.

She also found it "troubling" that the city would hold the ballots after arguing in court that the votes should be counted. "One is left to wonder what turned them around," Rollinger said.

Wright, of the county registrar's office, added, "It's very, very strange, but I don't suppose any action on their part would surprise me. They're one of the most unusual little jurisdictions I've ever encountered."

Vernon is a tiny city south of downtown Los Angeles that has long had a reputation for having a closed government. Most of the residents are city employees who live in city-owned apartments.

The election saga began in January, when eight people took up residence in a boxy commercial building. Within days, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council.

Almost immediately they began to be followed by private investigators, and utility crews turned off their power. The building they shared was red-tagged by inspectors. Eventually, police and other officials drilled holes in the locks of the property and evicted the office-seekers.

The city accused the newcomers of being part of a takeover plot by Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of nearby South Gate nearly bankrupted that city.

The eight residents' voter registrations were rescinded, and the incumbents voted to cancel the election and reelect themselves. But a judge later said that officials had acted illegally and reinstated the election.

Since then, both sides have accused the other of misconduct.

Vernon has fewer than 100 residents, but it has seen a 50% surge in its election rolls in recent weeks.

Absentee ballots sent to voters say that they must be returned in prepaid-postage envelopes. But the envelopes sent by the city require self-stick stamps, prompting fears that some ballots could get lost in the mail.

The last contested City Council election in Vernon was in 1980 -- and it also became controversial.

Philip Reavis, along with Spence Hogan, a former Vernon police chief, challenged the city's incumbents. Hogan won in the original count. But when the elder Malkenhorst disqualified six of the votes cast for the former police chief, Hogan lost.

On Wednesday, Reavis said that he spent $50,000 fighting the city in court before giving up. The city has more than $100 million in cash and investments.

City leaders "just beat you down with money," Reavis said. The challengers "cannot afford to fight the city. They have too much money."

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