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After 6-Month Delay, Choices of Vernon Voters Are Known

Sequestered since April, ballots from the city's first contested election in 25 years are counted. The incumbents win.

October 20, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Better luck in 2031?

The first contested election the industrial town of Vernon had in 25 years has come to an end. On Thursday, in a standing-room-only chamber in City Hall and amid a collective titter of expectancy, ballots from the April election were finally counted.

History was made, but it was repeat history: The three men who moved into the city, who weathered an eviction, court challenges and gun-toting private investigators, had forced an election. But as has been the case for the better part of half a century, the challengers lost to longtime incumbents.

Sixty-eight ballots -- sequestered in a red box for six months as legal challenges to the election made their way through the courts -- were counted in this city of 93 residents. The challengers got 10 votes.

When the results were read, the crowd broke into applause.

The small chamber was packed with city employees, including utility workers and firefighters, many of whom live in city-owned houses that are heavily subsidized. In the build-up to the ballot counting, they commented on the large crowd.

"I think we're exceeding our fire capacity," one employee said.

"It's OK; our firefighters are here," another replied.

Most of the votes were for longtime Councilmen Thomas Ybarra and Michael McCormick and Mayor Leonis Malburg, whose grandfather co-founded Vernon and who has served on the council for half a century. Most residents live in homes owned by the city.

Two of the challengers -- Don Huff, 42, and David Johnson, 25 -- stood disappointed outside Vernon City Hall after the count. A third challenger, Alejandro Lopez, was not present.

Huff, who has lived for periods out of his sport utility vehicle after being evicted from his home in Vernon, said the city would never again go a quarter-century without an election.

"I'm going to do the Arnold Schwarzenegger thing and say, 'I'll be back,' " Huff said. "From now on, it's going to get tighter and tighter and tighter for them."

Huff said he learned a lot from challenging the city.

"When I come back on the playing field -- which is going to be real quick -- I'm going to know all their strategies," Huff said. "There's not a dang thing I don't know.... I'm still going to fight to get on that seat."

But for others, including business owners, the defeat of the three challengers was a victory.

"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," said Bill Sallenbach, vice president of Steel Services Grinding. The challengers "were just here to line their own pockets.... What did they have to offer the city? Nothing."

His uncle, Steve Schaffer, said: "All of the business people in the city of Vernon are really pro-Vernon. I wish other cities were organized and run in the business-like manner in which this city is."

Some Vernon officials, including the former city administrator -- and father of current City Clerk Bruce V. Malkenhorst Jr. -- are under criminal investigation by the district attorney's office for alleged misuse of public funds and vote fraud.

But Schaffer said such things did not bother him.

"Whatever was done by the people who run this city or ran this city in the past, they have been pro-business, and they've always thought business," Schaffer said. "And they've always taken care of the city."

The counting of the ballots culminated a bizarre election that captured national attention and focused new attention on a town that critics say operates more like a feudal fiefdom than a local democracy.

It began in January when eight strangers moved into a small building in the tiny city four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Within days, three of them had filed petitions to run for the City Council.

Shortly afterward, city utility trucks shut off their power and inspectors slapped red tags on the building, decreeing it uninhabitable. The residents were placed under surveillance by investigators -- two of whom were arrested in South Pasadena for allegedly pointing guns. Eventually, city police and officials drilled holes in the locks and evicted the would-be office seekers.

The three candidates' voter registrations were canceled by the city clerk, who accused them of being part of a plot led by convicted former South Gate treasurer Albert T. Robles to take power in the industry-rich town.

County election officials subsequently said the city clerk had no authority to cancel voter registrations, and a Superior Court judge later ruled that the election should go forward. But after the ballots were collected April 11, a judge ruled that the city could sequester the ballots until the litigation was resolved.

The attorney for the three challengers, also named Albert Robles, objected to the ballot counting, arguing that there could be no assurances that the secrecy of the ballots had been secured.

He said that history did not support the belief that Vernon officials would allow a fair election to go forward, and that in the past they have disqualified votes and tried to cancel other elections.

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