With just days to go before ballots are counted, even the most keen-eyed visitor would be hard-pressed to know that the City of Industry is holding its first council election in 17 years.
There have been no yard signs, no fundraising, no candidate forums and little active campaigning — mostly because everyone already knows everyone else in the politically tight-knit San Gabriel Valley industrial suburb 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
FOR THE RECORD
Industry election: An article in the May 31 California section about the City of Industry’s first council election in 17 years said that the city sprawls along the 10 Freeway. It should have said the 60 Freeway.
Come Tuesday, a scant 125 registered voters — some with questionable eligibility — will decide who will control the three seats up for grabs and, along with them, Industry’s levers of power.
The election comes amid separate investigations by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the state controller into the financial ties between the city and ex-Mayor David Perez and his family-owned companies, which city-commissioned auditors found had reaped $326 million from Industry contracts since 1995.
A Times investigation in 2009 detailed the lucrative, decades-long relationship the Perez family had with the city, providing services such as landscape maintenance, building upkeep and trash collection. A subsequent investigation by the district attorney’s office was closed in 2011 without any charges filed.
The current council voted to cancel one of the Perez family’s profitable maintenance contracts last year, and now a slate of candidates backed by the former mayor is vying to gain control of the council.
Kevin Radecki, the city manager, said he fears the Perez-backed candidates will fire him and other city employees who challenged the Perez family contracts with Industry if they win. He said the Perezes “are going to clean house and get their city back.”
Last week, the city sued the former mayor and relatives who are involved in the family businesses, alleging that they misappropriated millions of dollars through fraudulent billing, unauthorized work and other means.
The family’s attorney, Stephen G. Larson, called the timing of lawsuit “suspicious” given the city’s upcoming elections on Tuesday.
“It is obvious this lawsuit is nothing more than another politically motivated hatchet job against the Perez family orchestrated by individuals desperate to preserve their power,” he said.
Perez and his relatives did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
Industry, a city of 2,500 businesses and about 400 residents that sprawls along the 10 Freeway, rarely sees contested elections. Races are often canceled for lack of challengers, and when elections do occur, voters exhibit impressive levels of electoral harmony. In 2009, four ballot measures passed unanimously while two others were approved with a single dissenting vote. Just two people voted against a 2003 ballot measure that authorized the city to issue up to $500 million in bonds.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office investigated the 2009 election for voter fraud and claimed that some city officials lived outside of the city, but no charges were filed.
A Times analysis of Industry’s 2015 voter registration list and county property records shows that nearly 85% of voters live at properties owned by either the city or the Perezes.
More than 10% of voters have the last name Perez. Dozens of voters live in reduced-rate, city-owned homes that rent for an average of $665 a month, according to The Times’ analysis of city rental agreements.
As the election approaches, Industry’s voter registration rolls have grown by at least 36 names, increasing from 89 registered voters in 2013 to 125 now.
At least 12 of these new voters took up residence at properties owned by the Perezes or Perez companies, according to records reviewed by The Times. In the last two years, four others have registered at homes owned by council candidates.
Vicki Cheraz said she worked at a hardware store owned by a woman who later married ex-Mayor Perez. Cheraz said that when Perez rented her a home in Industry in the mid-1990s, it came with an unusual requirement.
“He made for sure if you rented one of his houses, you had to register to vote,” said Cheraz, adding that Perez personally told her she needed to register. “It was one of his stipulations.”
Cheraz said she was never told whom or what to vote for, but no elections occurred during the year she lived in Industry.
Morgan Cianfrocca and her husband moved to a home owned by council candidate Newell Ruggles’ family a few years ago when Ruggles, a high school friend and their current neighbor, offered them a rental house with a yard for $1,200 a month. Cianfrocca says she’s not familiar with the issues in Industry’s election, and she wasn’t told how to cast her ballot, but she plans to vote for Ruggles.
Ruggles did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
One new voter, Jesse Palomarez, was unaware that he had been registered to vote when reached by phone. At the same address, Darlene Palomares, 18, said she was not familiar with the issues but registered to vote at the suggestion of her father, Andrew Palomares, an employee of Grand Central Recycling, a Perez-owned company.
“My dad is going to walk me through the issues and stuff,” Palomares said.
Several voters appear to be registered at nonresidential addresses, which would violate voter registration laws that require voters to use home addresses.
Two voters are currently registered at the Hillside Southern Baptist Church. But on a recent visit, church member Jaime Tolentino, who was working on the grounds, said no one lives at the church or the trailer behind it.
The dynamics of Industry’s politics began to shift in 2012, when Perez stepped down as mayor after 10 years, citing health reasons. Last September, Industry officials canceled the general maintenance contract with the family’s Zerep Management Corp.
Soon after Perez stepped down, the city commissioned a financial review by KPMG auditors, who found that Zerep and other family companies had received millions from city contracts over two decades.
Radecki said the city also is reviewing the trash contract held by another Perez company, Valley Vista Services.
Radecki’s brother Mark, a current planning commissioner and former Zerep maintenance supervisor, is part of a Perez-backed slate of candidates seeking to unseat incumbents Tim Spohn and Patsy Marcellin. Kevin Radecki said he and his brother have a strained relationship.
Ruggles and Cory Moss, who work for companies that contract with the city, are the other two candidates backed by Perez.
The election, which many describe as a power struggle, has not focused on specific issues.
Spohn, the current mayor, said that’s not unusual in small-town politics. Despite the current investigations and political turmoil, Industry continues to run smoothly, Spohn said, leaving no major issues on which to campaign.
“We’re a small community,” said Spohn, who has campaigned by going door to door and passing out fliers. “Basically it’s reaching out to individuals in the electorate and trying to garner their support.”
Spohn spoke briefly to a reporter after a recent City Council meeting, and Marcellin could not be reached for comment. A third council member, John Paul Ferrero, is not running for re-election.
Moss, Ruggles and Mark Radecki did not respond to multiple phone calls, emails and visits to their homes or places of business.
Earlier this month, a flier supporting their campaigns was distributed among some Industry residents, according to a source, who asked not to be identified over concerns of retribution.
It assured voters that “HOW YOU VOTE WILL BE A SECRET!!” and makes some campaign promises: “New Team. New Ideas. New Beginning.”
Times staff writers Kim Christensen, Paul Pringle and Doug Smith contributed to this report.