Reno Bellamy, right, who was declared the winner in the June City Council… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
A hearing officer Monday concluded that voter fraud occurred in Vernon's June City Council election, throwing out seven of the 64 ballots cast in the race and declaring a new winner.
The decision by former Superior Court Judge Debra Wong Yang came after an unusual, quasi-judicial proceeding last month at City Hall in which dozens of voters were called to testify about their commuting patterns, financial histories and even Facebook pages. Yang ruled that five of the voters in question were not residents of the city. Two others, she said, did not properly submit their ballots.
Yang's ruling, if approved by the City Council, would tilt the race in favor of candidate Luz Martinez, who had trailed 34 votes to 30.
It would also reverse the decision made by the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, which dismissed the voter challenges this summer and called the race for Martinez's opponent, Reno Bellamy. Vernon responded by creating the hearing process and hiring Yang at a rate of $990 an hour.
The council races in Vernon this year were viewed as important milestones for the ongoing reform effort within the city government, which was nearly disincorporated last summer by the state Legislature after a series of corruption scandals. The city is home to about 1,800 businesses but just 112 residents, and critics have long argued that it functioned as a fiefdom for its leaders rather than a legitimate democracy.
Both the June contest and a previous race in April were thrown into chaos by allegations of voter fraud. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce, which supported Martinez, hired private investigators to figure out who really lived in the city and mounted a series of legal challenges.
Fredric Woocher, the lawyer representing the chamber, called the decision Monday a vindication, saying it showed that democracy could work in Vernon despite its tiny pool of voters.
"The chamber felt the election had been stolen, and they went out there to prove it," Woocher said. "This will go a long way to making sure elections in Vernon are conducted fairly in the future."
In several instances, Yang wrote, there was "clear and convincing evidence" that voters did not live in Vernon. Bernard Roberts, for example, openly admitted during his testimony that he resided in Arizona. "I just visit [Vernon]; I don't live here. I visit all over the country, if I get the chance," the 90-year old Roberts said.
But Yang also sided against the chamber in two cases where voters claimed multiple residences, including Roberts' son, Dennis, who said he moved to Arizona to take care of his father but always planned to return to Vernon.
Leaders at the chamber have alleged that the Roberts family was part of a broader conspiracy to stack the voter rolls organized by former city officials. In his testimony, Dennis Roberts acknowledged a relationship with Curtis Fresch, a former renewable energy consultant to the city who was paid more than $300,000 in 2010.
"It's pretty clear now that these weren't just isolated instances," Woocher said.
Martinez, a former secretary in Vernon's Fire Department, was celebrating her victory Monday, more than six months after she first started to campaign.
"Today is a joyous day in Vernon," she said in a statement. "I am eager to work with members on the city council on issues that promote further reform in Vernon."
Bellamy, meanwhile, called the hearing proceedings "bogus" and said he was considering further legal action. He pointed out that the city created the rules for the judicial proceedings only after the registrar named him the winner, and that it was paying Yang nearly $1,000 an hour for her work.
"The city government itself ran this show," Bellamy said. "When it comes to an election, they shouldn't be playing that part. They shouldn't have any say in who wins — that's more corrupt than the old Chicago mob."