San Gabriel Councilman-elect Chin Ho Liao was the second highest vote-getter in the city’s March elections, but his first time on the council dais last week was as a witness under cross-examination.
The City Council voted not to seat Liao after resident Fred Paine filed a complaint alleging that Liao’s true residence is outside of the city’s borders. Though Liao has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to contest the council’s vote, the city has also created its own hearing process to determine Liao’s residency.
Many of Liao’s supporters have accused the City Council of discriminating against Liao because of his race. More than 60% of San Gabriel’s population is of Asian descent, and just two other council members of Asian descent have won seats since the city was incorporated in 1913.
Several reporters from Chinese-language media were among those who filled San Gabriel’s rustic City Council chambers Thursday when it was transformed into a crude courtroom. Four council members became judges. A city clerk’s desk briefly functioned as a makeshift witness stand, and the clerk herself swore in witnesses.
Over three days of contentious debate, attorneys presented battling explanations for Liao’s changing residency status.
Liao had twice rented an apartment within city borders before running for City Council. After losing the first race in 2011, Liao returned to a home in an unincorporated neighborhood known as East San Gabriel before allegedly moving back to an apartment within the city’s border.
Paine’s attorney, Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, painted Liao’s moves as cynical attempts to meet residency requirements for council office.
“He is merely a carpetbagger who has come in, time and time again, for the sole purpose of being seated up there next to you,” Alvarez-Glasman said to the council. “This is not about politics, or ethnicity or race, or the people on the council. It’s about the law.”
Liao’s testimony was alternately halting and emphatic as he admitted to splitting time between residences in and outside of the city borders. But he insisted that running for office was not the only reason behind the moves, pointing to deep community ties in San Gabriel. Both he and Paine are past presidents of the Rotary Club of San Gabriel, and Liao is listed on the club’s website as the vice president.
“My heart is in San Gabriel. I’ll live and die here,” Liao said twice during testimony.
The Asian Pacific American Legal Center has represented Liao for free, calling questions about his residency “meritless” and warning that the council’s actions threaten to disenfranchise Asian American voters.
Liao’s attorney Nilay Vora said that Liao has always intended to move permanently to San Gabriel and argued that Liao was not simply renting apartments within city borders, that he was living in them as well.
Vora subpoenaed three neighbors who testified that they had met Liao, regularly saw his car parked at the building and heard his movements in the apartment through shared walls. Liao also submitted a receipt from a moving company and described his possessions, among other evidence.
Liao’s moves, Vora argued, were partially the product of a troubled 25-year marriage.
Both Liao and his wife, Tracy Huang, admitted to “communication problems” during testimony. They slept in separate beds when they lived together, Huang said. She had no idea that Liao planned to run for office.
“We don’t get along. We don’t have good communication,” said Huang, communicating with an interpreter.
Their problems began when Huang filed for divorce in 2003. Liao said he has been “begging her” to live with him for the sake of their daughter, but Huang has remained at their home in East San Gabriel.
If Liao had no interest in living in San Gabriel and “representing a community he felt was underserved, why would he keep fighting this? Why would he lie?” Vora asked.
But Alvarez-Glasman said Liao’s actions are “inconsistent with his intent.” Liao testified that he has only recently begun to bid on houses within the city and that his name is still on utility bills and bank accounts associated with the East San Gabriel home.
“He waits until the outcome of the election, then he tries to go and do the things a reasonable person would have done already,” Alvarez-Glasman said.
Five candidates ran for three open seats in the hotly contested March 5 election. Liao, Councilman Jason Pu and Mayor Kevin Sawkins won seats. Incumbents David Gutierrez and Mario De La Torre, who ran as a bloc with Sawkins, lost. As one of their last acts on the council, Gutierrez and De La Torre also cast two of the four votes that denied Liao his seat and launched city hearings about his residency.
Jessica Levinson, an elections law professor at Loyola Law School, called the council’s actions “atypical” and “fairly inappropriate.”
“The City Council has a clear conflict of interest,” Levinson said. “It’s ousted incumbents, purporting to have the jurisdiction and power to adjudicate whether their victorious challengers can be seated.”
Sawkins, who was the third-highest vote-getter, said that holding their own hearings gives the City Council the opportunity to give the issue the attention it deserves. The council has more of a “vested interest” in a fair process than a district attorney’s office or an independent hearing officer would, Sawkins said.
“A resident brought a claim to us, and I hope people realize how seriously we’re taking it,” Sawkins said. “We haven’t prejudged this at all.”
But accusations of bias flew fast and thick, and much of the procedure was marked by bitter disagreement, with quibbles over who interrupted whom, whether opening statements should be allowed, and even the qualifications of a Mandarin Chinese interpreter — and who should pay for her.
Vora accused Alvarez-Glasman of being Sawkins’ campaign manager and filed a written request for Sawkins to recuse himself for a conflict of interest. Alvarez-Glasman, over three days of debate, asked Pu three times to recuse himself for a conflict of interest.
Both sides gave closing arguments Saturday. The City Council is reviewing the case and expects to deliver a ruling on Liao’s residency at a meeting May 6.