Only a handful of voters turned out for Tuesday's election, but those who did gave a resounding "no" to an advisory measure that could have led to the replacement of the city's 21-year-old Police Department with Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.
Voters also defeated a measure that would have imposed a special tax on felt-tip markers and spray cans to help the city pay its $200,000 annual bill for graffiti cleanup. The measure, which won 58% of the vote, required a two-thirds majority.
Tuesday's election, with only 626 of the city's 5,000 voters casting ballots, had the lowest voter turnout in at least 10 years
"It's awful," City Clerk Leanna Keltner said of the turnout. "This is the lowest I have ever seen. I think part of the reason was because it was a quiet campaign. But other than that, it looks to me like people just didn't care one way or another."
Nearly 80% of the voters opposed having the county patrol the city, despite a study by the Sheriff's Department that it could provide the same service for about $1.5 million less than it costs to run the Police Department.
"Our officers know us," 21-year-old Teresa Quintero, a 17-year resident of Bell Gardens, said Tuesday after voting at the Bell Gardens High School auditorium. "They have been following the trends here. They know what our problems are and they are familiar with the city. If the Sheriff's Department came in now, I don't see how they could do the same job."
Some voters said that slow response time from the Sheriff's Department before Bell Gardens established its own police department in 1970 also played a role in their decision. Because the deputies would have been based in Pico Rivera, some voters said they feared response time would still be a problem.
Other voters said they were influenced by the recent reports of excessive use of force by sheriff's deputies.
"I think the Sheriff's Department is too rough," David Garcia, 63, a five-year resident of Bell Gardens, said after casting his ballot. "They just don't have any patience."
City police officers celebrated the vote with a party in the warehouse of a local cable manufacturer.
"I think the people have spoken," said Lt. Dale Pierce, who helped write the ballot argument against the switch. "I think it's a sign of the support we enjoy."
"We're glad to still be employed," the lieutenant added jokingly.
The vote means that the issue will be dropped, said City Manager Claude Booker.
"I'm sure the council will not vote to go to the Sheriff's Department if the people vote no," Mayor Robert Cunningham said.
Cunningham, and council members Douglas O'Leary, Rosa Hernandez and Letha Viles said they voted against the switch. Allen Shelby, the only other council member, could not be reached for comment.
"I'm absolutely against it, I've been against it ever since it was first brought up," Cunningham said. "We have a good police department. There is no reason to change."
City officials decided to ask voters whether they approved a switch to the Sheriff's Department after a preliminary financial analysis by Booker showed that the city could save about $2 million a year by hiring sheriff's deputies to patrol the city. A city survey conducted this summer showed that 59% of the 909 people who responded would favor such a switch.
City police officers, led by the Bell Garden Police Officers Assn., argued that a switch to the Sheriff's Department would mean a loss of local control over police services. They also argued that reports of rape and robbery fell below county averages in 1990 as a result of work by Bell Gardens police officers. Officers said the city, one of the wealthiest in the Southeast area, can well afford to pay for its own department.
Should the city of Bell Gardens contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services?
5 of 5 Precincts Reporting
MEASURE VOTE % Yes 141 23 No 478 77
Should an ordinance be adopted placing a special tax on the sale of spray containers and markers to help defray the cost of graffiti removal? (Measure requires two-thirds majority to pass.)
5 of 5 Precincts Reporting
MEASURE VOTE % Yes 356 58 No 260 42