Troubled City Looks to New Council Members

Times Staff Writers

In the months since an ongoing municipal corruption case eroded its City Council ranks, Carson has limped along, able to conduct routine city business but little else.

It has paid its bills and its employees but has put off most important policy decisions. From Oct. 15 -- shortly before two past and two present city officials were indicted on federal charges -- to Jan. 21, the council was unable to muster the minimum number of three members needed to hold a meeting.

Still, an election for new council members approaches, and Carson did hold its usual robust celebrations of civic pride. The latest was last month's exuberant parade commemorating the 35th anniversary of the South Bay city's founding.

Longtime Carson resident Cherry James, one of the nearly 8,000 people that organizers estimate watched the nearly three-hour procession, said she found the parade inspirational, a way to get past the political corruption scandals that periodically have hobbled the city.

"It brings a future for us," James said as she sat along the parade route in a baby blue jogging suit. "We have to look to the future and not behind us."

Carson voters will have the opportunity to shape that future in Tuesday's municipal elections. They can choose from among 18 candidates to fill the two council seats left empty by resignations and subsequent guilty pleas as the federal investigation unfolded last year.

The elections and the scheduled March 18 swearing-in of the victors will give the city its first real shot at a return to normality. They will bring the council back up to its full five-member contingent for the first time since April, when Councilman Manuel Ontal Jr. abruptly announced his resignation after voting to rescind the waste-hauling contract that is the major part of the federal case.

Authorities later said Ontal had been secretly cooperating with them since September 2000, when he walked into the U.S. attorney's office and told of what prosecutors now describe as a pattern of widespread corruption -- the extorting of bribes for votes on lucrative city contracts.

The case came to a head in November, when a grand jury indicted Councilwoman Raundra Frank and Mayor Daryl Sweeney, Sweeney's personal attorney and others. Frank resigned in December after agreeing to plead guilty, but she had stopped coming to council meetings several weeks earlier.

(Last month, Ontal pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of extortion and filing a false income tax return.)

Sweeney, the main target of the investigation, has pleaded not guilty and has announced he will remain in office -- his term ends in 2005 -- while preparing to defend himself in court.

The corruption scandal looms over all aspects of civic life, and several civic leaders said they fear disenchanted voters will stay home on Tuesday.

Requests for absentee ballots, often used to gauge voter interest, numbered little more than half what was expected, said longtime City Clerk Helen Kawagoe. "Such apathy!" she lamented. "It's really unfortunate. I keep trying to tell people, 'You still need to vote; you really can make a difference.' "

The slew of candidates features some neophytes billing themselves as a "fresh start" for the city and others with a record of long involvement in politics. They include a former city councilwoman, a longtime planning commissioner widely viewed as a political ally of Sweeney, a community college board member and several other members of city boards.

Longtime Carson activist Robert Lesley is part of a group that sponsored forums and interviewed candidates.

"Due to past and present corruption in the city, everybody jumped on the bandwagon of honesty, integrity and ethics," Lesley said.

"This is not to question the candidates' integrity, but we have heard this before," Lesley added, noting each of the indicted officials had promised to be open and honest. "So you can't really blame people if they don't believe everything they hear."

While fallout from the scandal preoccupied many of Carson's leaders, the day-to-day aspects of running the city continued much as usual.

Thanks to procedures put in place well before the corruption probe surfaced, the city was able to issue checks to workers and vendors even though the council could not meet to officially ratify the expenditures.

Even trash-collection services -- jeopardized when the bribery probe prompted rescission of the new, allegedly tainted contract -- has continued uninterrupted.

But the depleted City Council missed out on its chance for a final review of terms for two 95-foot-high electronic marquees to go with the controversial new soccer stadium complex nearing completion on the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus.

Some members of the city's largest employee union, whose contract expired eight months ago, believe part of the blame for the delay in reaching a new accord can be laid at the feet of the short-numbered, distracted council. They've taken to occasional picketing at City Hall to press their cause.

Other issues, including how to cope with proposed state budget cuts to municipal coffers, also have taken a back seat to the council's troubles.

"It's been a problem, I can't deny that," City Manager Jerry Groomes said. "But Carson is a great city with great opportunities, and we are looking forward to getting some good people [with Tuesday's elections] that can help us move forward."

Councilman Jim Dear, one of only two city lawmakers not involved in the corruption case, said the scandal has had a "devastating effect," from deflating employee morale to marring the city's image with the business community.

"There's a tremendous uncertainty in the air," Dear said. "I'm hoping with two new council members, things can begin to jell again, but I know it will take a while for the city to heal."

Gil Smith, one of the civic leaders who pushed for Carson's incorporation in 1968 and who served as its first mayor, predicted it will take a decade for the city to fully recover, based on what happened after previous scandals that rocked the city.

The first broke just two years after incorporation. Three commissioners, two councilmen and one former councilman were arrested in connection with bribery scams involving trash collectors and zoning matters. In 1986, a councilman was convicted of mail fraud and extortion.

"And here we are, all these years later. You say to yourself, 'My gosh, what happened?' It's really a major tragedy," said Smith, who remains active in the city he has devoted much of his life to. "It almost brings you to tears."

Through it all, Carson residents have continued to celebrate their city of nearly 90,000.

On the December evening that a grim-faced Mayor Sweeney was holding a news conference to publicly avow his innocence, crowds of Carson residents were streaming into another part of the festively decorated community center for the annual holiday party. That same month, the city honored schoolchildren who had won a "Why I Like Carson" essay contest with a banquet and medallions handed out by their recently indicted mayor.

Then there was last month's parade. More than 340 marching bands, drill teams, equestrian units and marchers from dozens of organizations moved down Carson Street, waving to cheering onlookers. Local hero J.R. Redmond of the NFL's New England Patriots headed the list of celebrities riding in the parade.

As a smiling, business-suited Sweeney rode along in a yellow Porsche, he waved and thanked parade-goers for coming. The crowd waved back.

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