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The Orange County Vote : Early Voting Back Ousters in Fullerton : Recalls: Similar effort against 4 on Westminster council, backed by firefighters, appears headed for defeat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early returns showed Fullerton residents voting Tuesday to oust three City Council members who voted to institute a 2% utility tax.

Four council members in Westminster, however, appeared to be surviving a recall attempt.

In Fullerton’s first-ever recall election, absentee votes favored the recall of Mayor A.B. (Buck) Catlin and council members Don Bankhead and Molly McClanahan by a sizable margin. But City Clerk Anne M. York, also a recall target, appeared to be holding on to the post she has filled since 1976.

If the council recall effort succeeds, it would be the first in the county to do so since 1989.

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Citizens launched the recall movement last July when the mayor and two council members voted for the utility tax to offset a $3-million city deficit.

Council members expressed surprise at the early results Tuesday but did not concede defeat.

“It’s been very difficult, very stressful,” said Bankhead as he sipped beer in a Chinese restaurant and waited with about 100 supporters for the votes to be tallied.

Catlin, who was not conceding defeat based on the early results, said that if the recall does succeed, “established, experienced, dedicated leadership will give way to inexperienced and single-issue candidates who may not have the real and sincere interest of the city.”

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Ed Trotter, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, agreed Tuesday night, saying: “If the recall goes through, I think we’ll have a serious problem for years.”

Gathered at a nearby Italian eatery, about 70 volunteers who powered the recall campaign were jubilant as they watched the results on two overhead TV sets but were hesitant to declare victory.

“I’m thrilled,” said Thomas Babcock, chairman of the Fullerton Recalls Committee. “If the absentee ballots are any indication, then all the work these people have done is going to be rewarded.”

On a separate question, voters indicated by a 3-to-1 margin that they want a special election to replace the recalled council members. City officials said previously that such an election could cost $100,000.

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In Westminster, the recall attempt was failing by a margin of 2 to 1 in early returns.

Westminster firefighters had targeted Mayor Charles V. Smith and council members Craig Schweisinger, Charmayne S. Bohman and Tony Lam because of their vote last July to cut nearly $1 million from the Fire Department’s budget, forcing layoffs. But despite support from unions across the state, the recall seemed headed for failure Tuesday night.

“After this year of hell that we’ve been through, it’s finally a relief that this will be resolved,” Bohman said as she sat with supporters at Westminster Manor.

The mood at the banquet hall was buoyant, as council members and about 100 supporters munched pretzels, sandwiches and chips.

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“We feel pretty comfortable, based on the reaction of the people that we have talked to,” Mayor Smith said.

Fire Chief John T. DeMonaco Jr. expressed relief that the recall effort was over.

“This will give us a chance to get the Fire Department back on track,” DeMonaco said. “Nothing is going to happen until this thing is over and behind us.”

Times correspondents Bert Eljera and Mimi Ko contributed to this report.

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