Casting a vote for chaos

Earlier this year, angry trash haulers helped mount a recall of two City Council members in Montebello who had voted to award an exclusive waste-hauling contract to a rival company.

Tens of thousands of dollars were spent. Dozens of complaints alleging harassment were filed with police during the campaign. But for all the furor, fewer than 10% of the city's voting-age population showed up to cast ballots.

The pattern is a familiar one in the small, scandal-plagued cities of southeast Los Angeles County. Whether in Montebello, Bell, Lynwood or almost any of their heavily immigrant, mostly Latino neighboring cities, elections are frequent, intensely fought and decided by tiny fractions of the population. The combination, experts say, contributes to chronic political unrest and opens the way to repeated incidents of corruption.

A Times analysis of voting records found that elections in these cities were more likely to have extremely low turnout than those elsewhere in Los Angeles County.

At the same time, these communities are hotbeds for politicking and electioneering. Even as the vast majority sits on the sidelines, a few political players engage in a frenzy of electoral activities, a merry-go-round of special elections and recalls that sweep many of the same faces — or members of the same families — in and out of office.

These elections are often swiftly followed by allegations of voting fraud, which are investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Of the roughly 160 complaints clearly identified as involving elections in Los Angeles County's 88 cities in the last decade, roughly one-third involved a dozen southeast cities.

"The danger here is that you have a small group running everything for their own benefit, rather than for the public good," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "The democracy isn't very healthy.... Low turnout is an invitation to misconduct."

Over the last decade, officials in Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera, South Gate, City of Commerce, Lynwood, Vernon, Compton and Huntington Park have been charged with or convicted of crimes such as election fraud and public corruption.

Bell is the latest city in the region to be hit by scandal. The district attorney charged eight current and former officials last month with public corruption charges, and many of the same officials are named in a civil suit by state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. Related investigations are also underway in the neighboring cities of Vernon and Maywood.

The criminal charges in Bell focus in part on high salaries earned by top administrators and council members. Those salaries were made possible by a ballot measure that was approved in a 2005 election in which only 390 people — fewer than 2% of the voting age population — cast ballots.

That was the lowest turnout for any election in southeast Los Angeles County the last six years, but not by much. For last year's South Gate City Council election, 3% of the voting-age population turned out. And a 2007 recall election in Montebello drew 5% of the voting-age population.

The 2005 Bell election was held on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and only one item was on the ballot: Measure A, a proposal to convert from a general law city to a charter city, which allowed city officials to

sidestep limits on their salaries.

The timing of the election — on a day when few residents might be expected to be focused on politics — is no anomaly. The low-turnout special elections and recalls that are fixtures of the southeastern Los Angeles County cities often are scheduled for days that could be expected to keep turnout low.

At least 20 municipal elections in those cities since 2005 had turnouts lower than 10% of the voting-age population, according to the Times analysis. In 17 of those elections, there were only local issues on the ballot.

The Times analysis looked at turnout as a percentage of the adult residents of the city to get a sense of overall degree of civic participation. Many cities in the southeastern part of the county have large populations of immigrants who are not citizens and cannot vote, reducing the potential voter pool, but turnouts are more robust for balloting held on regular election days.

Outside the southeastern corridor, Rosemead and Monterey Park, which also have sizable immigrant populations, have seen their voting-age participation in recent local elections hover around 15%. In more affluent cities, including Beverly Hills, Claremont and Cerritos, by contrast, nearly one-quarter of the voting-age population participated in local elections.

Although few people vote in cities in southeast Los Angeles County, the politics are nonetheless intense, with politicians and special interests engaging in dozens of recalls and recall attempts.

In Montebello, three council members have been recalled in two elections since 2007. There have also been recall elections in the last four years in Commerce, Lynwood and Maywood.

Commerce, a largely industrial city with a population of about 13,000, has been through a municipal game of musical chairs. Mayor Tina Baca Del Rio was ousted in a recall election in November 2008 by a margin of fewer than 40 votes. Voters sent her back to office four months later. The city's cost for the most recent recall election was nearly $22,000.

Councilman Hugo Argumedo, who had backed the recall effort against Del Rio, had himself been expelled in a 1998 recall and then reelected in the next election. And Argumedo and Del Rio were both targets of a recall attempt that didn't make it to the ballot in 2005, before a disagreement led Argumedo to oppose the mayor in the most recent recall attempt.

The recall championship, however, belongs to Bell Gardens. The city of 45,000 garnered national attention in 1991 when it became the first city in Southern California to elect an all-Latino City Council.

Like many of its neighbors, Bell Gardens grew up out of beet and cauliflower fields between the two world wars to become a landing place for Dust Bowl immigrants drawn to tidy neighborhoods and good-paying factory jobs.

By the 1980s, new immigrants, mostly Latino, had moved into town, becoming the majority. City government, however, was slower to change. The recall election that installed the Latino majority was hailed as historic, a sign of a new era of democratic governance in the region.

But it hasn't quite worked out that way.

That recall election ushered in a contentious style of politics that has resulted in least four dozen recalls or recall attempts against candidates in Bell Gardens in the last two decades. Many cities, by contrast, have had no recalls in that time period.

Recalls have been only part of the municipal turmoil in Bell Gardens. One closed-door council session was memorable for hurled chairs. In 1994, a candidate allegedly shoulder-slammed the 16-year-old daughter of his rival.

More recently, the FBI has examined the city's contracting, and last year Councilman Mario Beltran stepped down as part of a plea deal in a case involving failure failing to deposit cash contributions to his campaign. He also was convicted in 2007 of filing a false police report about how his wallet and council badge came to be were found in a downtown hotel frequented by prostitutes.

Meanwhile, turmoil in city elections has, if anything, grown worse. In each of the three Bell Gardens municipal elections since 2005, 10% or fewer of the voting-age population has cast ballots. Despite the low voter participation, candidates and officials in Bell Gardens have been accused of voting fraud 10 times in the last decade, more often than those in any other city in the county, according to records from the district attorney's office.

In the most recent case, Councilman Daniel Crespo and unsuccessful City Council candidate Cristina Garcia accused Mayor Priscilla Flores and Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Rodriguez of visiting residents at home, where they "filled out their ballots and took the completed ballots from them," according to a complaint Garcia filed with the district attorney's office.

Under state law, residents must mail their own ballots or personally deliver them to their polling places in most cases.

Crespo also said that residents of an assisted living facility, Bell Gardens Manor, told him that Rodriguez and her representatives had bribed them with cigarettes in exchange for their ballots. In declining to prosecute that case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Juliet Schmidt, a lawyer with the Public Integrity Division, wrote that

"although the candidates very well may have solicited votes from mail voters in their residences," the residents were not credible witnesses because of mental problems and conflicting statements.

Flores and Rodriguez denied all the charges, calling them politically motivated.

Recall campaigns can start for many reasons, but in the cities of southeastern Los Angeles County, a common one is money. "It's my experience it's always some business interest that is funding these recalls," said former Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco, who has worked on contracts in two of those cities since leaving office. "Sometimes it's a city attorney who has been forced out. Sometimes it's a developer."

Sometimes, business interests use the threat of a recall to get their way.

Council members and others in Bell Gardens and Commerce have told The Times in the past that they were threatened with recalls or told that existing recall efforts could be halted, based on whether they voted to award legal services contracts to the law firm of Francisco Leal. The lawyer denied the allegations. In Commerce's most recent recall, two of Leal's firms contributed at least $17,000 to committees involved in the recall.

The reason the recall has become such a popular tool, political experts say, is simple: Low-turnout contests, especially those on days when there are no other elections, allow groups of disaffected voters or well-funded special interest groups to win relatively cheaply.

"You don't have to talk to as many voters," said Chris Robles, a political consultant who has been involved in recalls in recent years in Lynwood, Maywood and Montebello.

These communities also tend to lack a vibrant local press and civic institutions that can vet candidates and issues, some observers say. In this vacuum, special interests can hire consultants to unleash the tools of modern campaigning — fliers and robo-calls — and turn an election.

"When you have local community people … up against these kind of political professionals, a lot of the time they get outgunned," said Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), a former city councilman who has led the charge to reform government in the area.

"You have disengagement and apathy … but at the same time, hyperactivity among elites," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "There is no watchdog function to constrain their behavior.... This is what happens when you can rewrite the rules to produce real payoffs."

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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