Some in South Gate Fear Funds at Risk

Times Staff Writers

A day after South Gate voters ousted four controversial city officials, citizens and recall proponents on Wednesday were asking themselves two questions: Is their city's strange political saga over? Or will it get even stranger?

Council members who backed the recall said Wednesday that they might take the extraordinary step of asking a court to freeze the city's assets, saying they feared that the three recalled council members would fast-track measures that could leave the city bankrupt.

As the polls closed Tuesday night, city staff, authorized by Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, rushed through nearly $500,000 in payments, mostly to attorneys, even though the city's reserve fund is almost depleted.

City officials pledged a smooth transition, but recall backers remained wary. "We're trying to prevent any action before they leave office, if in fact they plan to leave," said Stephen Kaufman, an attorney for the recall proponents. "We want to make sure what's left of the city treasury remains there."

In Tuesday's election, residents, by a nearly 8-1 ratio, voted to oust Treasurer Albert Robles and his three council allies: Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel and Councilwoman Maria Benavides. The new council members are Greg Martinez, Steven Gutierrez and Maria Davila. Rudy Navarro will replace Robles as treasurer.

For many residents in the working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County, the city's operatic power struggle provided an inspiring and important civics lesson, and served to introduce many immigrants to American-style democracy.

The turnout of nearly 8,000 voters was much higher than for other elections in this city of 27,000 registered voters, and many said in interviews that the campaign tactics of the recall targets motivated them to vote for the first time. Robles suffered the biggest defeat, with 84% voting in favor of recalling him. About 81% of the vote went against the three council members.

"We need some new people to start fresh," said Jessica Macedo, a 23-year-old social worker. Like many, she said the recall targets tried to sway voters by rolling out several city-funded giveaways, including free trash service in December and, this month, a raffle for a free house.

"It's kind of a democratic renewal," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of public affairs at Cal State L.A. "If, in fact, politicians are violating the people's trust, then sooner or later the populace is going to have their day of reckoning."

The use of freebies disgusted many voters in this predominantly Latino city, where many said such tactics reminded them of a brand of politics once common in Mexico but now out of fashion there. Jaime Villafuerte, a 34-year-old Mexican immigrant, made the city's struggles a regular topic of discussion with his fellow students at his U.S. government class at South Gate Adult School across the street from City Hall.

The students, many of them recent immigrants, debated, kept up with news coverage, attended community meetings and took a field trip to view Monday's news conference at City Hall. There they heard Secretary of State Kevin Shelley explain that state officials would act as poll watchers to guard against fraud or intimidation. When Villafuerte announced the recall's victory Wednesday, the class broke into applause.

"It just made me so mad that those politicians were giving us a bad name," Villafuerte said. "I'm glad we could do something about it."

"All in all, it was a great civic experience for my class," said Villafuerte's teacher, Vita Sheremetiev, who added that many of the students were once apathetic about politics. "The students ... saw that people can change things."

Sheremetiev's class will have plenty to watch as the transition unfolds. Because of the unique nature of the special election, it is unclear how and when the new leaders can be sworn in.

Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack said leaders can be installed any time after the county Board of Supervisors certifies the election results Tuesday. The City Council, she said, does not have to certify the results before the clerk swears in the new officials.

Last week she had said the council would have to certify the election. But after county attorneys reviewed the matter, they decided council approval wasn't necessary.

The city's elected clerk, Carmen Avalos, said she anticipates that the City Council will try to stop her when she tries to install the new members next week. "I expect them to try to keep me from doing anything that isn't beneficial to them," said Avalos, who was stripped of her powers by the council last year.

City officials on Wednesday were considering a slightly different timetable. Julia Sylva, the city's election supervisor, said she would recommend that the new officials be sworn in Feb. 11. "We want to be gracious and magnanimous in turning over the gavel," Sylva said. "Perhaps it's time to turn over a new leaf."

Ruvalcaba also took a conciliatory tone, saying in a prepared statement: "The council majority fully intends to honor the results of Tuesday's recall election. We will abide by the legal requirements in order to effect a smooth transition."

But the politicking might continue. South Gate has a regularly scheduled council election in March.

In the fall, three of the recall targets -- Robles, Ruvalcaba and Moriel -- took out papers to run, but it was unclear Wednesday whether they would seek office again.


Times staff writer Li Fellers contributed to this report.

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