Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Court Sides With Voters in Challenge by City of Vernon
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday rejected the City of Vernon’s attempt to cancel the voter registrations of eight individuals who city officials claimed moved to the town as part of a fraudulent scheme to take over its government in the April 2006 municipal election.
Affirming a ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz, Div. Seven held in an unpublished opinion that the voters were legally domiciled in Vernon when they registered, and that the city had failed to prove the registrations were illegal under state election law.
The city contended the registrations were part of a plot by former South Gate Treasurer and convicted felon Albert T. Robles, former Vernon City Attorney Eduardo Olivo and disbarred South Pasadena attorney Cristeta Summers to gain a majority on the city council of the small industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles, which had only 90 registered voters at the time.
Robles is currently incarcerated on federal corruption charges.
The eight individuals all registered to vote in January 2006 after moving into a small building in the city, and three of them subsequently filed nominating petitions—signed by the others—for seats on the council on the last possible day, forcing the town’s first contested election in 25 years.
After Vernon city elections official Bruce Malkenhorst Jr. uncovered what he called a “daisy chain” of connections between the voters and Robles, Olivo and Summers, the city’s building department determined the property was unsafe for occupancy, and the voters were evicted from the premises.
It was later determined that Olivo, who signed leases for occupancy of the building with the tenants on behalf of a business entity he controlled, lacked authority to do so.
Malkenhorst cancelled the voters’ registrations and rejected the nomination forms for the council election, but the voters filed a petition for a writ of mandate seeking reversal. In response, Malkenhorst filed a cross complaint seeking an order directing the Registrar-Recorder to cancel the registrations under Elections Code Se. 2213.
However, Munoz ruled after a bench trial that although it appeared that Robles, Olivo and Summers had schemed to take over the city council using the eight voters as pawns, all of the voters had established their legal domicile in Vernon when they registered.
He similarly concluded that the city had failed to demonstrate a reasonable inference that cheap housing, and the possibility of jobs or other promises, had been offered illegally in exchange for votes.
Seven of the eight voters ultimately voted in the 2006 election, but the three incumbent city council members retained their seats despite the challenges.
On appeal, despite the election results rendering the issue moot, the city claimed the voters were not legally domiciled because the property did not constitute a “fixed habitation.”
But Justice Fred Woods rejected the argument, noting that the voters testified to a good faith belief that they had resided on the property legally, and that they had intended to remain in Vernon permanently.
Woods similarly concluded that the city had failed to show any statutory grounds for canceling the registrations because it could not prove any illegal acts under the Elections Code.
“It appears based on the evidence presented at trial that there was an effort underway to move additional residents (and potential voters) into the city of Vernon permanently and have them participate in the local political process,” he commented. “While this was a circumstance that caused great concern among the long time residents and city leaders to say the least, such an effort is not per se illegal or fraudulent….
“Absent the requisite showing of illegality in the registration or voting process, the community’s fear that new residents to Vernon will disrupt the way of life or the balance of power that has existed in the city for generations, is not enough to disenfranchise these [v]oters.”
Woods emphasized that nothing in his opinion should be read to endorse the conduct of Robles, Olivo and Summers, but merely that Malkenhorst had failed to prove an illegal act.
Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss and Justice Frank Y. Jackson joined Woods in his opinion.
The case is Giron v. Huff, B194722.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company