San Gabriel Councilman-elect Chin Ho Liao listens to attorney arguments… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
San Gabriel Councilman-elect Chin Ho Liao was the second-highest vote-getter in the city’s March elections, but on Thursday he took the council dais for the first time as a witness under cross examination.
The City Council voted not to seat Liao on March 26 and launched their own investigation after resident Fred Paine filed a complaint alleging that Liao’s true residence is outside the city’s borders. Though Liao has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to contest the council’s vote, the city has also created its own hearing process to determine Liao’s residency.
The council chambers, styled like the interior of a barn, served as a crude courtroom on Thursday afternoon as the city began the first day of hearings. Four council members became judges and a city clerk’s desk briefly functioned as a makeshift witness stand.
Paine’s attorney, Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, compared Liao to a "carpetbagger" during five hours of intense debate marked by open confrontation, confusion over procedure and raucous commentary from the packed council chambers.
“Mr. Liao has a pattern and a practice of moving in and out of the city to run for office,” Alvarez-Glasman said during his opening statement. “He has attempted to offer limited information and documents to pull the wool over your eyes.”
Liao, whose testimony was marked by long, uncertain pauses, admitted that he had split his time between rented apartments in San Gabriel and a home in an unincorporated neighborhood known as East San Gabriel.
But Liao insisted that running for office was not the only reason behind the moves, pointing to years of involvement in the Rotary Club of San Gabriel and other groups. He also said that he has met the residency requirements each time he ran for office and that he's been searching for a home in San Gabriel for years.
“My heart is in San Gabriel. I’ll live and die here,” Liao said during testimony.
Five candidates ran for three open seats in March 5’s hotly contested election. Liao, Councilman Jason Pu and Mayor Kevin Sawkins won seats. Incumbents David Gutierrez and Mario De La Torre, who ran as a bloc with Sawkins, lost. As one of their last acts on the council, Gutierrez and De La Torre also cast two of the four votes that denied Liao his seat and launched city hearings into his residency.
Jessica Levinson, an elections law professor at Loyola Law School, called the council’s actions “atypical” and “fairly inappropriate.” Elections complaints should be decided by an outside agency like the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, Levinson said.
“The city council has a clear conflict of interest,” Levinson said. “It's ousted incumbents purporting to have the jurisdiction and power to adjudicate whether their victorious challengers can be seated.”
Sawkins, who was the third-highest vote-getter, said that holding their own hearings gives the city council the opportunity to give the issue the attention it deserves. The council has more of a “vested interest” in a fair process than a district attorney’s office or an independent hearing officer would, Sawkins said.
“A resident brought a claim to us, and I hope people realize how seriously we’re taking it,” Sawkins said. “We haven’t prejudged this at all.”
Nearly every part of the procedure was marked by bitter disagreement, with quibbles over who interrupted who, whether opening statements should be allowed, and even the qualifications of a Mandarin Chinese interpreter – and who should pay her.
The body spent the first hour arguing whether Pu and Sawkins should recuse themselves for conflicts of interest, and the next two hours discussing whether Liao should be compelled to produce 13 different categories of evidence.
Attorneys from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center have taken up Liao’s case, saying that the city council’s actions threaten to disenfranchise Asian American voters.
[For the record, 9:55 a.m. April 26: An earlier version of this post misidentified the legal group representing Liao. It is the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, not the Asian Pacific American Law Center.]
The incumbents "couldn’t beat him at the ballot box, so now they’re trying to do it in this hearing,” said Liao’s attorney Nilay Vora.
Liao has also accused the city council of playing racial politics in public statements. Liao and Pu are of Asian descent and speak Mandarin Chinese. The majority Asian community has elected just two other council members of Asian descent since it was incorporated in 1913.
Pu said he "completely disagrees" with the council's actions.
"By refusing to seat Mr. Liao, the old, outgoing city council violated elections code and our American democratic principles," Pu said.
The hearings have caused deep rifts in the community in more ways than one.
Paine and Liao are both past presidents of San Gabriel’s Rotary Club, and Paine said they’ve known each other for seven years. Once, he said, they considered each other friends.
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