Campaign workers walk Vernon's streets in March. (Christina House / For the…)
Vernon's first competitive elections in years took more bizarre twists this week when the L.A. County registrar announced it would uphold disputed ballots that city officials had ruled were fraudulently cast and the city moved to evict some of the voters in question.
At a meeting Thursday, Vernon's housing commission gave city staff the approval to remove residents at four households if they are found to have violated their lease agreements.
The decision comes after two City Council races were thrown into chaos by claims of widespread voter fraud. About 60 people, from about 100 residents, submitted ballots in the elections. But both contests remain under challenge, as city and county officials have disagreed over which votes should be counted.
"It's complete craziness down here," said Reno Bellamy, a council candidate and housing commission member whose race will be decided based on how many of the contested ballots are ultimately counted.
Eric Gustafson, the chairman of the Vernon housing commission, said the eviction measure was not motivated by politics but rather by complaints that people were registered to vote at residences where they weren't named in the lease agreement or permitted to live. He said he was caught off guard when some people showed up at the commission's meeting and accused the city of trying to kick out voters who didn't support candidates backed by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce.
"The commission is simply doing its job. We had complaints from residents, we were investigating those complaints," said Gustafson, a local businessman and member of the chamber. "I don't see this as a political situation."
But former Councilman Daniel Newmire, who has sued the city over its handling of his April election, claimed the action was retribution.
"The city's handpicking their voters, they're taking away people's rights to vote," Newmire said. "This is exactly what they were accused of doing in Sacramento."
Vernon held elections in April and June. They were viewed as key milestones in its reform process. The city, which has 1,800 businesses, was nearly disincorporated in the state Legislature last year after a series of public corruption scandals. Critics have argued that a lack of open elections in the city has allowed it to be run by a small group of individuals.
Jaime Regalado, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A., said the turmoil showed that Vernon had a long way to go in its reform effort.
"It's not exactly the same system, but to me it seems the end-game hasn't really changed much at all," Regalado said. "It's entrenched interests trying to protect the status quo."
The chamber was actively involved in both campaigns, as its members walked door-to-door in support of candidates Michael Ybarra and Luz Martinez.
Ybarra ran against Newmire, and Martinez faced Bellamy, an ally of Newmire's who moved into the city in 2010.
The chamber has labeled Newmire and Bellamy part of the "old-guard" responsible for Vernon's troubled past. Newmire, meanwhile, alleges the chamber has aligned with a group of private attorneys who are trying to seize control of City Hall.
On April 10, the first election night, an attorney for the chamber argued that six ballots came from voters who did not live in Vernon. The city agreed and refused to count their votes. Two other ballots were disqualified by the city clerk because of signature issues.
Ybarra, the chamber's candidate, went on to win by a seven-vote margin. Newmire has since sued the city over its handling of the ballots and is demanding a recount.
All six of the voters whose ballots were tossed out in the April race voted again this month. The chamber once again challenged the ballots, along with four new voters who it claimed did not live in Vernon. This time, the challenges were rejected by the county registrar, which ruled there was insufficient evidence to dismiss the votes.
The decision is likely to swing the race in favor of Bellamy, who trails Martinez by three votes. Bellamy said most if not all of the challenged ballots came from his supporters.
But eight of those individuals are registered at city-owned housing units now targeted for eviction. Bellamy, who was the lone commissioner to vote against the eviction proposal, claimed Ybarra was behind the action.
"The Ybarras are out of control," he said, referring to Ybarra and his relatives. "They want to take over the city."
Ybarra did not respond to a request for comment. But Fred MacFarlane, a spokesman for Vernon, said that all of the residents targeted by the housing commission will have the opportunity to prove that they live in Vernon and are in compliance with the terms of their leases.
"They're going to have an opportunity to make their case," he said. "The action won't result in immediate eviction."