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San Gabriel councilman-elect sues after being denied seat

Chin Ho Liao won enough votes in last month's election, but the incumbent City Council refused to seat him, citing a residency challenge. So he is asking the court to step in.

April 04, 2013|By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times

Chin Ho Liao, the second-highest vote-getter in last month's City Council election in San Gabriel, is suing the city after the incumbent council refused to seat him in order to investigate a resident's challenge of his residency.

Five candidates ran for three seats in the hotly contested March 5 election. Liao, Jason Pu and incumbent Mayor Kevin Sawkins garnered the most votes. Incumbents Mario De La Torre and David Gutierrez were defeated.

But resident Fred Paine filed a complaint accusing Liao of living outside the city limits, which would make him ineligible to serve on the council. Responding to Paine's complaint at last week's meeting, the council considered three options: seat Liao anyway, refer the matter to an outside party or conduct its own investigation.

An article in the April 5 LATExtra section about the dispute over San Gabriel councilman-elect Chin Ho Liao’s place of residence said that resident Fred Paine filed a complaint about Liao’s residency with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The district attorney’s office did receive such a complaint, but Paine said he did not send it.

De La Torre, Gutierrez and Sawkins, who ran for reelection as a bloc, voted against seating Liao and for launching an investigation. Councilman John Harrington, who endorsed the incumbents' bloc, did as well. Councilwoman Juli Costanzo was the lone dissenting vote.

As part of the same action, the council directed the staff to investigate complaints about poll workers in two precincts making recommendations to voters. It was unclear whether these complaints were related to Liao.

Liao's complaint said the City Council "took it upon itself" to decide the merits of the complaints.

"Respondents have used the pretext of unsupported allegations made by a single individual to derail a state-mandated process. ... The result is chaos, frustration and the resulting disenfranchisement of thousands of San Gabriel residents," Liao's complaint says.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Wednesday granted Liao's petition asking the court to compel the council to seat him or explain its decision at a hearing, set for May 14.

Liao's attorney, Stephen Kaufman, said he was "extremely pleased" with the decision.

"Interestingly enough, three of the council members defeated by Mr. Liao voted not to seat him," Kaufman said. "Sounds like sour grapes to me."

Bryce Gee, an attorney for San Gabriel, said the city was also pleased because the judge set a hearing date that gave it time to complete its investigation, which Gee took as an implicit endorsement of the city's authority over the issue.

"The judge postponed making a decision on Mr. Liao's lawsuit until May 14 in order to give the city enough time to conduct a public hearing on Mr. Liao's qualifications to serve as a City Council member," Gee said in a statement.

The city has not yet set a hearing to determine Liao's qualifications, said City Manager Steven Preston. City staff must create a process and get it approved by the council before the investigation can begin.

Preston said he had not encountered this kind of challenge in his 14 years with the city. Election complaints are typically resolved by city staff; but this year, with low turnout and lots of provisional voting, was a "unique" situation, he said.

"It is important to know that the city did not initiate these complaints, but only responded to them in accordance with our policy," Preston wrote in an email.

Paine, the resident contesting Liao's residency, filed his complaint with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. A spokeswoman there said the complaint was under review as the office determines whether a full-fledged investigation is warranted.

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