The city of Vernon owns nearly all of the residential property within its… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
The city of Vernon on Wednesday was roiled by allegations of widespread voter fraud, including claims that outsiders were brought in to vote in an attempt to influence the city's first competitive election in years.
The Chamber of Commerce alleges that nearly 30% of the registered voters didn't live in Vernon. In response to the group's complaints, city officials threw out six ballots Tuesday, tilting the election for a City Council seat to challenger Michael Ybarra, who won by five votes.
But incumbent Councilman Daniel Newmire is vowing a challenge. Los Angeles County prosecutors said they are probing some of the allegations.
The chaotic election has once again raised questions about whether the tiny industrial city, which has been plagued by public corruption scandals in the last few years, can function in a democratic way. Vernon has an official population of just over 100 residents, most of whom live in city-owned homes and apartments.
"Vernon, by design, has never had an independent citizenry. Every protection of ethics, fiscal responsibility and fairness is absent," said Rick Cole, a local-government expert.
State Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), who in recent months has pushed a reform movement in the city, said Tuesday's election was a first, admittedly "messy," step in the right direction.
"This is a city that had a long, long history," he said. "You can't just snap a finger and change it overnight … the world doesn't work that way."
The race this spring was considered a key milestone for the reform effort — City Council elections have been held very rarely in Vernon's history, and most council members were simply appointed to their seats.
But in recent weeks the campaign was mired in allegations of voter fraud. Both candidates suggested that the other side was adding voters. City officials launched a review of registrations after learning that nine registered voters were at one small, city-owned home.
Shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, city employees, residents and businesspeople gathered in the City Council chamber for the count. But instead of tallying the votes, the city clerk indicated that some ballots had been challenged.
Frederic Woocher, an attorney for the Chamber of Commerce, presented the group's findings. He invoked a rarely used provision in the state election code that allows for individual ballots to be challenged and reviewed before they are counted.
In all, the chamber alleged that 21 of Vernon's 74 registered voters did not actually live in the city. Seven of those individuals cast ballots in Tuesday's race.
The first challenge pertained to Gary Sabara Jr., a man who claimed to live in a small city-owned home. Woocher argued that Sabara was a resident of Orange County.
He cited a report from a private investigator and a Facebook profile that said Sabara lived in Anaheim. He also referred to a recent article in the Orange County Register about a Laker Girls event, in which Sabara was identified as a Buena Park resident and quoted as saying: "It's Lakers. It's Laker Girls. They are the prettiest of all the cheerleaders."
Sabara, who was in attendance at the vote counting, was then asked directly by a city attorney whether he was a resident of Vernon.
"Am I a resident?" he said. "I don't have a residence anywhere."
Sabara explained that he lived at several different locations and stayed occasionally at the home of a friend in Vernon to save money on gas. (He said the Register's Laker Girls quote was accurate, but that he was not a "permanent resident" of Buena Park).
The city's canvassing board unanimously accepted the challenge to Sabara's ballot.
Woocher then successfully argued that five other voters who had submitted ballots did not actually live in Vernon, but in locations such as Corona, Lucerne Valley and Surprise, Ariz.
On Wednesday, Woocher told The Times that private investigators used a "ruse" to get some of the voters to admit that they did not live in Vernon. Other evidence was found through property records and various online databases.
"People leave trails these days," he said. "These Facebooks can be gold mines for information."
Two other ballots — including one from an individual on the chamber's list — were disqualified by the city clerk because of signature issues. Besides Sabara, none of the other challenged voters were in attendance
After more than two hours of deliberations, the 43 remaining ballots were counted, out loud, by Vida Barone, a member of the city's canvassing board.
Ybarra ended up winning, 24 to 19. He smiled, shook hands and celebrated with a small group of supporters. He said he had been confident about his chances since earlier in the day, when he learned of the chamber's findings.
Newmire did not attend the hearing or count, but said Wednesday that the election was "robbed" from him and that he was exploring ways to formally challenge it.
"They've taken away some of the people's right to vote that are legal registered voters," he said.
Woocher, however, said he was confident the process would hold up in court. And some of the board members who heard the evidence said they believed strongly the voters did not live in Vernon.
City spokesman Fred MacFarlane said Ybarra's election would not be official until two remaining provisional ballots could be certified by the Los Angeles County registrar of voters.