Fraud alleged in Vernon council election

The Los Angeles County registrar is refusing to declare a winner in Tuesday’s Vernon City Council election until charges of voting fraud are addressed, marking the second election in the city in the last three months to come under challenge.

The contests were considered a key test for Vernon, which has been plagued by corruption scandals in recent years and was nearly disincorporated by the state Legislature last summer. Competitive elections have been extremely rare in Vernon’s history and critics have argued the city cannot function as a legitimate democracy because of its tiny residential population.

An April City Council race was thrown into chaos when the Vernon Chamber of Commerce claimed that nearly a third of the city’s 74 registered voters did not actually live there and could not legally vote. Six ballots were disqualified by the city, leading to the defeat of incumbent Councilman Daniel Newmire. Last month, Newmire filed a lawsuit against the city demanding a recount.

In Tuesday’s election for a second vacant council seat, 10 of the 61 ballots cast have also been challenged by the Chamber of Commerce, officials said. Efrain Escobedo, a manager for the registrar-recorder/county clerk’s office, said the challenges were being reviewed this week and that the results would not be finalized until June 22.

“Our job is to review the information and make a determination on whether the person had an established residency,” Escobedo said. “It’s a high-stakes game, and we’re sensitive to that.”

Thirty-seven ballots were counted on election night and candidate Reno Bellamy took a five-vote lead over his opponent, Luz Martinez. Bellamy is an ally of Newmire’s who moved into an apartment owned by the city of Vernon in 2010. The Chamber of Commerce campaigned against both Bellamy and Newmire, saying the candidates opposed the city’s ongoing reform efforts.

On Wednesday, unaware of the chamber’s challenges, Bellamy was under the impression that he had won the race. The next day, however, he told a reporter he was confused about the situation.

“Wow, all this craziness,” Bellamy said. “Nothing ever makes sense here.”

By Friday evening, the registrar had updated its official tally, giving Martinez a three-vote lead.

Fredric Woocher, an attorney representing the Chamber of Commerce, said that of the 10 challenged ballots, which have not yet been counted, some were submitted by people whose votes were thrown out in the April 10 election because officials determined they did not live in the city.

“It’s just outrageous,” Woocher said. “This is blatant voter fraud.... These people are going to get what they deserve.”

In the April election, Woocher successfully argued that six voters were not actual residents, presenting evidence that ranged from property and cellphone records to Facebook pages. Woocher also said that some of the people in question had admitted to private investigators that they did not really live in Vernon but in locations such as Corona, Lucerne Valley and Surprise, Ariz.

Two other ballots in the April election were disqualified by the city clerk over signature issues. Newmire, the incumbent, went on to lose by seven votes to challenger Michael Ybarra.

A week later, Newmire asked the city to recount the ballots. After the city refused his request, he filed a lawsuit in early May.

“I want a judge that’s neutral and fair-minded to look at this,” Newmire said. “It appears that people lost their rights to vote.”

A spokesman for Vernon declined to comment specifically on the case but said a hearing is scheduled for next month.