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CITY ELECTION : Incumbents Throughout Area Ousted From Office : Southeast cities: Few are able to hang onto their jobs as political newcomers prepare to join councils.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Residents throughout the Southeast will see lots of new faces on their city councils, as voters ousted incumbent candidates in a majority of cities in Tuesday’s municipal elections.

In Bellflower, all three incumbents on the ballot were defeated. Some incumbents also were ousted in Norwalk, Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, Artesia, Pico Rivera, Paramount, Signal Hill, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, South Gate, Maywood and Huntington Park.

In Norwalk, where the hottest campaign issue was whether to fire City Manager Richard R. Powers, voters ousted two incumbents who were the city manager’s allies and elected an incumbent who wants to reduce the city manager’s authority. Two of Powers’ most vocal critics, including a former City Hall employee who was fired by the city manager for alleged sexual harassment, also won council seats.

Councilman Gordon A. Stefenhagen, 51, was the lone incumbent to be sent back to office. He cruised to a decisive victory, and was the top vote-getter among 16 candidates. Stefenhagen, who was appointed to the council in 1992 after Grace F. Napolitano was elected to the state Assembly, said he believes Powers has too much influence and control in City Hall.

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Other winners were Eleanor Zimmerman, 73, the well-known wife of late councilman John Zimmerman, and Jesse M. Luera, the former director of social services who was fired last year after being accused by two women of sexual harassment at City Hall. Zimmerman has vowed to demote Powers, and Luera promised that he would move to fire the city manager.

Veteran councilmen Luigi A. Vernola and Robert J. Arthur, both staunch supporters of Powers, were soundly defeated. Each received just 6% of the vote.

Powers could not be reached to comment.

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Luera, who will now give up his post as president of the Norwalk-La Mirada school board, has consistently denied the sexual harassment allegations, and denounced a hit piece sent out to voters detailing the claims.

"(I am not someone) who will fall apart under pressure,” Luera told a cheering crowd of supporters at Govan’s, a local eatery. “We are sturdy and strong and in control. Now we can move forward and help the residents of Norwalk.”

Others in the throng of supporters said they did not believe the allegations. Some questioned the timing of a civil lawsuit filed two weeks ago by a woman who alleged that Luera raped her.

“It backfired because the people in the community know (Luera) and we know his character,” said David Plaza, a 25-year-old Norwalk resident who was among the crowd of well-wishers.

In Whittier, Councilwoman Helen McKenna-Rahder, who successfully spearheaded past efforts to throw out City Council incumbents, had the tables turned. She lost to little-known challenger Greg Nordbak, 42, owner of a trophy store and a woodcarving shop.

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Incumbent Bob Henderson was the leading vote-getter among eight candidates for two four-year council seats. In the contest for a two-year term, appointed incumbent Janet R. Henke easily outdistanced challenger Robert A. Canales.

Nordbak pledged to be a dissenting voice on a council whose members, he said, were getting along too well. He accused incumbents of trampling on the rights of property owners and supporting anti-business regulations. Four years earlier, McKenna-Rahder had scored big by arguing that the city should demand higher standards from developers.

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In Santa Fe Springs, voters decided to dump one city councilman but returned another incumbent who was strongly opposed by organizations that represent city workers and firefighters.

Unofficial tallies showed Ronald S. Kernes, 55, retained the seat he has held for more than 16 years. Voters also elected George Minnehan, 56, a truck driver who has run for the council four times in the last eight years. Incumbent Al Fuentes, 64, who was seeking a third term in office, trailed by a few votes.

The winners accepted their victories tentatively early Wednesday. Still pending were 75 questionable ballots that were sent to county elections officials to be counted.

Four years ago, Kernes and Fuentes were reappointed when no candidates ran against them. This time, the incumbents faced heavy criticism from four other candidates and from the employee groups.

City workers and firefighters supported Minnehan and Hazel Fields, a former city clerk who worked for Santa Fe Springs for more than 25 years. Fields finished a distant fourth.

In Artesia, a dispute over absentee ballots and a malfunctioning ballot counter created an acrimonious election eve and delayed vote counting until early Wednesday morning. In the end, however, 20-year council veteran James A. Van Horn Jr. and one-term Councilwoman Mary Alyce Soares were ousted.

Voters elected former planning commission chairman Timothy J. Kelemen and current planning commissioner John Lyon, who had run a high-profile campaign.

In a move that surprised city officials, Hawaiian Gardens Councilwoman Kathleen Navejas asked to inspect more than 600 absentee ballots. She said she was working as a volunteer political consultant to Lyon and Kelemen, and was concerned about possible vote fraud.

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Navejas challenged 35 ballots, citing irregularities ranging from torn envelopes to improper signatures. Ultimately, city officials decided that 30 ballots had been completed properly and could be counted, City Manager Paul J. Philips said.

After the dispute over absentee ballots held up the vote-counting process more than two hours, the city’s vote tabulator broke down, forcing officials to begin counting votes manually, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

In Bellflower, voters rejected all three incumbents in favor of two former councilmen and a candidate who had failed miserably in his bid for council two years ago. Many blamed a failed card casino initiative in August for the demise of incumbents Bob Stone and Bill Pendleton, who favored the proposal. But incumbent John Ansdell, who did not support the gambling measure, also was defeated.

Challenger Randy Bomgaars, who lost his council seat two years ago by only 19 votes, was the top vote-getter. Voters also elected Ray T. Smith, who served on the council from 1966 to 1970, and longtime council critic Art Olivier. Smith said he thought Bellflower residents had grown weary of political infighting and personal disputes.

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Elsewhere, longtime Pico Rivera Councilman Richard L. Mercado Sr. finished seventh among 11 candidates vying for three council seats. Incumbent John G. Chavez and newcomers Helen O’Hara and Gil De La Rosa were elected. Mercado had supported a failed attempt last year to bring gambling to the city. In Paramount, incumbent Elvira A. Oropeza was replaced by Diane Martinez, and in Signal Hill, Councilwoman Carol A. Churchill trailed incumbent Gerard Goedhart and challenger Tina Hansen in the race for two seats.

In other races, Bell Gardens Councilwomen Rosa Hernandez and Josefina (Josie) Macias were defeated in a six-candidate race for two seats. Community activist Maria Chacon led the field, and city planning commissioner Ramiro Morales claimed the second council seat. Macias took office two years ago after a historic recall of four white council members.

In Huntington Park, Councilman Luis M. Hernandez, who still owes about $10,000 in fines stemming from faulty campaign expense reporting in 1990, was defeated. Two Maywood incumbents, Rose Marie Busciglio and Thomas H. Engle, also failed at reelection bids, as did Cudahy incumbent Joseph Graffio.

Incumbents posted solid victories in some cities, however. Voters in Cerritos reelected veterans Sherman R. Kappe and John F. Crawley. In La Mirada, incumbent Wayne Rew was the top vote-getter, and in Lakewood, Lawrence H. Van Nostran and Joseph Esquivel won by large margins.

In La Habra Heights, voters appeared to remain in an anti-development mood. Voters chose Carol Engelhardt, 48, an outspoken foe of the controversial Powder Canyon project, and Fred Klein, 49, the only planning commissioner to vote against it as their new council members.

Project supporter Boyd Coffman, the only other candidate, finished a distant third in the race for two seats. Incumbents Diane Kane and Richard N. Newbre did not seek reelection.

Staff writer Howard Blume and community correspondents Psyche Pascual, Greg Miller and John Pope contributed to this report.


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