A battle over the integrity of the election process is coming to a head this week in Lynwood, where the City Council has defied the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder and refused to set a date for a recall election targeting four of its members.
The registrar-recorder’s office concluded in June that there were enough signatures on recall petitions to force a special election for the four officials, two of whom were recently indicted on public corruption charges.
But when Lynwood’s elected city clerk tried to certify the recall petition, the City Council voted to strip her of all election duties, appointing its own election official to take up the matter.
The city clerk gave the petitions to the Sheriff’s Department, which has rejected the City Council request to review the documents.
“The only way they’re getting them is either by a request from the elected city clerk or by a court order,” said Capt. Steven M. Roller of the sheriff’s Century Station, where the petitions are being kept in an evidence locker. “The only reason we are storing the petitions is for the integrity of the recall process.”
The county registrar-recorder has set its own recall election date for Sept. 25, but the council is refusing to call the election. A Superior Court judge will hold a hearing today to consider a request by recall leaders to force the city to call an election.
Deborah Wright, executive liaison for the registrar-recorder, said her office has never handled a case like this.
Lynwood officials, she said, seem intent not only on blocking the election but also on learning the identities of residents who signed the petition -- which would be a violation of state law because the documents are supposed to remain confidential.
“It seems clear to me that what the council really wants is someone under their control to get a look at those signatures,” Wright said.
City officials are firing back, arguing that the recall petition might include fraudulent signatures. Mayor Louis Byrd said the county was exceeding its authority.
“We are the policymakers of Lynwood. The county doesn’t set policy for us,” Byrd said Monday. “We don’t care if the recall goes forward. We want the process to be fair and just, and don’t feel that it is.”
Lynwood, a city of 100,000 south of Los Angeles, has had a contentious political history.
In April, five current and former council members were charged with using public funds to boost their salaries and pay personal expenses. Byrd and Councilman Fernando Pedroza, the two current council members indicted, vehemently denied the allegations.
The four council members targeted by the recall effort are Councilwoman Leticia Vasquez, Councilman Alfreddie Johnson Jr., Byrd and Pedroza. The only council member not being recalled is Maria Santillan, who frequently opposes the others on council votes.
Vasquez said the people pushing for the recall are failed political candidates bent on wresting control of the city. She also said the registrar-recorder’s office did not check the validity of the signatures.
County officials strongly disagree.
“That’s absolutely false. We check each and every one of them,” Wright said. “They’re just making that up.”
Attorneys for the city and for the proponents of the recall are expected to clash in court today.
David Rodriguez, an attorney representing the city, said the election official appointed by the council, Deborah Jackson, is empowered to certify the recall election. He said that until the petitions are turned over to Jackson, the process cannot go forward.
Jackson previously headed the city’s quality of life department, but before that also worked in the city clerk’s office.
Rodriguez said that City Clerk Andrea Hooper never went through the proper process of verifying the recall signatures or placing the issue on the City Council agenda.
Hooper did not return a phone call seeking comment. But in a letter Monday to Rodriguez, her lawyer told of Hooper’s displeasure with the council’s actions regarding the recall.
“Ms. Hooper is an independent elected official,” the letter states. “She will not be ‘directed’ in the conduct of her duty by you or anyone else.”
In a June 27 letter to County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack, attorneys for the city criticized Hooper. “If she feels a law has been violated, her remedy is to bring a legal action against the city. Instead, it appears that she has chosen to ‘appeal’ the city’s decision to the county registrar-recorder’s office.”
Fredric Woocher, an election law attorney representing the backers of the recall, said the council’s reaction was not unprecedented.
Four years ago, Lynwood officials also resisted a recall, in a case against ex-Mayor Paul Richards, who subsequently was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison for corruption.
“They’re trotting out the same exact thing,” Woocher said. “Back then they also tried to get access to the signatures.”
Kareem Crayton, an assistant professor of election law and political science at USC, said the developments in Lynwood were bizarre. He said it was unusual that the registrar-recorder’s wishes would be defied without an apparent legal maneuver.
“As far as the claims the city has made, it seems those are the sort of claims better made to a court to enjoin an election from happening,” Crayton said, “as opposed to refusing to let a process laid out by the law move forward.”
The recall effort is just one of several launched against council members in Lynwood since the Richards situation, but the first to get this far. Vasquez said an investigation by Rodriguez’s firm, Strategic Counsel, previously found irregularities in the recall signature-gathering process.
Vasquez said she wants the district attorney’s office to investigate this.
But David Demerjian, the head of the district attorney’s public integrity unit, said these problems are news to him. “No one ever complained about that,” he said.
Demerjian said his office looked into the removal of Hooper, but did not find any criminal violations. His office is monitoring the situation.