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Rounding up votes in Carson recall campaign

Supporters, opponents of mayor canvass for Tuesday's election.

September 15, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

Carson Mayor Jim Dear has a name for the row of photographs of his predecessors at City Hall: "The wall of shame."

"It's incredible the amount of corruption we've had over the decades," said Dear, who was elected in 2004 on a promise of reform after former Mayor Daryl Sweeney was convicted in a bribery scheme.

But now Dear finds himself the target of a recall election led by opponents waging what they call a "David and Goliath battle" against the mayor, whom they accuse of favoritism and cozying up to developers.

"My philosophy is that you can't serve the many when you're financed by the few," said former Mayor Vera Robles DeWitt, one of the leaders of the recall campaign.

Dear acknowledges that he is pro-development but said that is not the same thing as being corrupt.

"It's almost like a bad movie, where all of the villains have gotten together and are trying to get me out of office," he said.

Both campaigns have their work cut out for them. Officials expect a low turnout in Tuesday's election, with less than 10% of the city's registered voters expected at the polls.

As a result, dozens of volunteers on both sides of the recall effort have spent the last few days canvassing neighborhoods, campaigning door to door, trying to win over high-propensity voters.

"With a low turnout, we need to concentrate on these people because the average person is not going to be voting," Dear said.

"Walk and call and walk and call," Barbara Post, a pro-recall supporter, said last week in explaining the group's campaign strategy. "We have a solid group of people that are so dedicated to walking."

The recall is the culmination of a two-year effort, much of it rooted in legal battles by residents suspicious of the mayor's relationship with developers.

They are particularly critical of the large campaign donations Dear has received from developers and other business groups such as Watson Land Co., which contributed $36,000, and Hopkins Real Estate, which gave $15,000. Dear has collected at least $125,000 in total contributions.

Carson Citizens for Reform submitted 12,000 voter signatures last year in support of the recall campaign but fell 86 signatures shy after Dear organized his own campaign that resulted in hundreds of withdrawal cards from petitioners.

But Citizens for Reform sued, arguing the withdrawal cards were invalid. A judge ruled in May that the group had collected enough valid signatures and the recall election could proceed. Organizers of the effort said they are operating on a shoestring budget.

Four candidates are seeking to replace Dear if recalled: former mayors Michael Mitoma and Gilbert D. Smith, former planning commissioner Oscar B. Ramos and resident Adrianus Hoogendam.

The city's reputation has been maligned in recent years as several officials have become entangled in scandal and the focus of federal investigations.

Sweeney, who served on the Carson City Council from 1997 until his resignation in July 2003, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to extort $600,000 from waste haulers competing for a $60-million city contract. He was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in the scheme.

Sweeney was the ninth defendant, second mayor and fourth member of the City Council to plead guilty in the Carson corruption case.

Dianne Thomas, president of Citizens for Reform, said her group worries that Dear is headed down the same path by putting the interests of developers ahead of those of residents. She said his support for a 196-unit apartment complex at University Drive and Central Avenue, despite strong opposition from residents, is what sparked the recall.

"We went before the planning commission and objected," she said. "Over 100 people, they still passed it. Those same people went to the City Council to say 'No, stop it.' They still passed it.

"It was at that point we said enough is enough," she said.

Tension between the two camps continues to run high. In the parking lot of a Carson restaurant last week, there was a short standoff as a pro-recall supporter stared down Dear.

Meanwhile, each side's campaign literature is filled with vitriol. Dear's opponents accuse him of insulting "all women," and he has branded his opponents "negative forces" that have "tried to bring our city down and are trying again."

Both sides expect to campaign until the last minute.

While canvassing part of the Del Amo neighborhood Friday night, Thomas recognized the address of a member of the city's Economic Development Commission.

"Well, hello, Mr. Dobard," Thomas said as she met him in his driveway. "Well, hello, to you," he said. "Who are you supporting? Or not supporting?"

"We're yes on the recall," Thomas said.

"I'm 100 percent against the recall," Dobard said.

"I kind of thought you would be," she said, as the pair launched into a debate over the merits of the campaign.

--

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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