A voting booth at Vernon City Hall. Fifty-three ballots were cast in the… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
The first competitive election in Vernon in years was thrown into chaos late Tuesday amid accusations of voter fraud before officials could begin counting the ballots.
A city canvassing board was set to tally the 53 ballots cast in the election at 8 p.m. when an attorney representing the Chamber of Commerce said he wanted to present evidence that seven voters didn't live in the city.
The board decided to hold a hearing on the allegations before the counting of the ballots for one City Council seat. Shortly after 10:30 p.m., challenger Michael Ybarra claimed a narrow victory, with 24 votes to incumbent Daniel Newmire's 19. But that result was likely to be challenged because eight ballots were disallowed and two others weren't counted.
In one of the disallowed ballots, the chamber alleged voter Gary Sabara Jr. actually lived in Buena Park. Frederic Woocher, the chamber's attorney, presented evidence gathered by a private investigator, including Sabara's Facebook page and an Orange County Register article that listed him as a resident of Buena Park.
Sabara, who was at the meeting awaiting the vote count, told the board he did not have a permanent residence and that he lives at several locations.
"I come and go" at a house of a friend in Vernon, Sabara said. "Not having a whole lot of money, it's a gas situation."
As the evening wore on, the board took testimony about other voters the chamber had questioned, eventually disqualifying a total of six. The city clerk disallowed an additional two because signatures did not match; two others were not counted because the county had not verified those voters' signatures in time.
In addition to Sabara, the chamber said its investigators found that some voters lived far from the industrial town in southeast Los Angeles County, hailing from such locales as Lucerne Valley, Corona and Surprise, Ariz. Some had registered to vote within the last month, in violation of the law.
Allegations of voter fraud swirled during the campaign. Last year, Vernon had 62 registered voters, according to a city report. That number rose by almost 20% by election day, when there were 74 registered voters.
Some in Vernon had hoped the election would be another step in reforming the city's reputation, sullied by a series of scandals.
Vernon came under fire in Sacramento last year, when state lawmakers argued it wasn't a real city and tried to dissolve it. The city survived the unprecedented disincorporation effort after brokering a reform plan with state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), which called for Vernon to move toward more open elections.
Most of Vernon's residents live in homes and apartments owned by the city and many have connections to City Hall. For decades, the arrangement led critics to charge that Vernon's leaders could handpick their voters.
The race this spring was viewed as the first competitive City Council election in Vernon's recent history.
In February, the city held its "first ever" candidates night, where Ybarra and Newmire spoke to a group that included about 15 residents.
Over the following two months, volunteers from the Vernon Chamber of Commerce canvassed door to door, and candidates distributed letters to residents.
It was clear from the beginning that the election would be decided by a small number of voters. At one point during the campaign, Ybarra told The Times he thought the race would come down to "three houses that I consider on the fence."
After learning there were nine voters registered at one small home owned by the city, Vernon officials notified the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and launched their own review of voter registrations, separate from the one undertaken by the Chamber of Commerce.
The probe included the hiring of private investigators, who interviewed registered voters to make sure they actually lived in Vernon.
"We wanted to make sure the election was done as cleanly as possible," said John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general who is now working as Vernon's ethics advisor.
For the most part, the candidates were friendly toward each other, and they seemed to agree on key policy issues facing the city. Both said they were against a parcel tax proposed by the city administrator, which city staff say is needed to cover a $16-million budget shortfall. They also pledged support for the city's ongoing reform efforts.
John Kruissink, a former Vernon consultant who worked as a city historian, said the race was the first true contest for City Council he'd ever seen in Vernon.
"I think many of the insiders in Vernon look back with nostalgia on the ways things used to be…. But they've also seen the writing on the wall," Kruissink said earlier this week. "They know they have to be vigorous about doing things the right way."