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Lynwood mayor, 3 council members voted out

Residents show their ire over a stadium proposal by leaders, who tried to stop the recall election.

September 27, 2007|Hector Becerra and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Lynwood city leaders thought they had a winner when they proposed a 70,000-seat NFL football stadium in their working-class city.

This week, voters punted the mayor and three council members out of office -- capping years of investigations, allegations of corruption and grandiose ambitions for the city.

Mayor Louis Byrd and council members Fernando Pedroza, Alfreddie Johnson Jr. and Leticia Vasquez were recalled by some 2,300 voters, or about 70% of those who cast ballots in Tuesday's election, according to unofficial results by the Los Angeles registrar-recorder.

The recall comes four months after five current and former council members were charged by Los Angeles County prosecutors with using public funds to boost their salaries and pay for personal expenses.

The four recalled council members had tried to block the special election, going as far as firing the city clerk. But a judge and then the state Legislature ordered the election to go forward -- under the supervision of county election officials.

The recalled politicians were hurt by the council majority's passing of a steep water rate hike this year. Pedroza voted against the measure but by then had become linked with Byrd, Vasquez and Johnson, in the minds of many residents.

Only one council member, Maria Santillan -- who often voted differently than her colleagues -- was not targeted for a recall.

But the issues that sealed the recalled politicians' fate were their dogged interest in building the NFL-style stadium and in commercial development, many observers say. Because those plans would require an entire neighborhood to be torn down, the council majority essentially motivated a large bloc of voters to boot them out of office. Marches and demonstrations at City Hall ensued.

"People just don't want to be told they may have to give up their homes," said Jim Morton, who is holding a lead in the race to replace Vasquez. He said incoming council members would pursue the stadium plan at the risk of having very short political careers.

The recall is yet another black eye for Lynwood, about 15 miles south of downtown L.A.

In 2005, former longtime Mayor Paul Richards was convicted of steering $500,000 worth of city contracts to a front corporation he secretly owned. He was sentenced last year to 16 years in federal prison.

Then, two current and three former council members were accused by prosecutors of padding their official $9,600 salaries to receive as much as $100,000 for part-time services.

Byrd and Pedroza were accused of using city credit cards and other municipal funds for personal expenses, including trips abroad and airline tickets for spouses, and in Pedroza's case, a session with an exotic dancer in Mexico.

The two politicians vehemently denied the allegations. The council members resisted moving forward with the recall, even after county election officials had verified petitions signed by thousands of Lynwood residents. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill authorizing Los Angeles County officials to take over the recall election.

Some city residents view the political drubbing of the four council members as a highly politicized miscarriage of justice.

"We all want what's best for this city, but it seemed that the one who screams the loudest is the one who is heard," said Lorene Reed, a longtime Lynwood activist and city commissioner. "Right now, Lynwood is in deep trouble."

The situation is so unusual that county election officials had to ask questions of the county counsel to figure out what should happen next. In 2003, three council members and a treasurer in the city of South Gate were recalled by voters, but that's the only other example of a city council that has undergone a drastic change, said Dean Logan, the county's chief deputy registrar-recorder.

"Certainly we have seen recall efforts in cities for one or two officials, but this is pretty unusual," Logan said. "It's not typical for us to even run these elections, but the Legislature intervened here."

Once county election officials certify the election results, that certification will have to be signed by the county Board of Supervisors, Logan said, probably on Oct. 16. Normally the remaining City Council members seat their new colleagues, but because there is only one incumbent left, another government body of the city of Lynwood will have to do that, he said.

Lynwood City Manager Roger Haley, who came from Long Beach in August, said he expected city staff and county officials to talk at length about the next steps. He is optimistic about the city's future, even as potentially drastic changes loom.

"I believe with all my heart that this city, in the next few years, will probably be one of the better cities in the Southland," Haley said.

Alfredo Flores, J. "Tony" Martinez, Ramon Rodriguez and Morton are on track to become the new council members, although county officials caution that 250 to 300 absentee and provisional ballots have yet to be counted. Even if Morton and Flores win, they will face an immediate test Nov. 6 because Byrd and Vasquez's seats are up for regular election.

Morton knows there is no time for rest.

"I've got to keep running right now because of the November election," he said. "I really can't even slow down."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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