Friday, September 20, 2002
Court of Appeal Rules Petitions for South Gate Recall Election Valid
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A drive to recall four South Gate elected officials appeared back on track yesterday as the Court of Appeal ruled that the recall documents substantially complied with elections laws.
The recall process has been tied up in court for months in the wake of a lawsuit challenging the petitions, which made the case for recall in bold type while reproducing the targets’ response in mixed standard and bold type.
In an opinion for this district’s Div. Eight, Presiding Justice Candace Cooper acknowledged that the typeface mix violated a provision of the Elections Code. But Cooper said the deviation from statute was so minor as to have no effect on the validity of the petitions, since they spelled out for South Gate voters the information they needed about the recall and the four targeted officials.
“The circumstances of this case warrant application of the [substantial compliance] doctrine because the technical violations are de minimis, and no evidence reveals the Proponents sought to manipulate the process in order to obtain unfair advantage by deemphasizing the answers,” Cooper said.
The petitions naming Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, Councilwoman Maria Benavides and Treasurer Albert Robles remain uncounted, locked in an Office of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/Clerk.
The county took possession of the documents after a related legal squabble, and Gov. Gray Davis has since signed legislation requiring that the county, and not South Gate elections officials, run the recall.
But county officials cannot yet begin tabulating the petitions to determine whether to move ahead with a vote. The Court of Appeal opinion does not become final for 30 days, and if lawyers for the targeted officials seek rehearing or Supreme Court review, the result could be stayed—and the petitions could remain locked up—pending another round of briefing and hearings.
Attorneys for the targeted officials and for South Gate elections official Julia Sylva did not return calls for comment.
Attorney Stephen Kaufman of Smith Kaufman, representing the petitioners, hailed the ruling.
“The court recognized that the petitions were valid from Day One,” Kaufman said. “The petitions complied with every objective of the [elections] statutes, and presented a full and balanced picture to voters.”
The recall process began a year ago but was stalled several times—for several reasons. At one point the targeted officials, three of whom represent the city council majority, voted to strip the elected city clerk of her official duties in the midst of court battles over her handling of the recall petitions.
Meanwhile Robles was arrested for making threats against other elected officials, while the council majority has voted him new positions and new pay.
The process has been so delayed that two of the recall targets are up for re-election in March. But Kaufman noted that two are in the middle of their terms, and vowed to press ahead with recalls for all four.
Cooper, in her opinion, rejected Kaufman’s argument that Elections Code Sec. 11041(b), requiring that all “petition sections shall be printed in uniform size and darkness with uniform spacing,” means that any two petition forms have to be identical.
The section clearly means that the recall proponents’ section and the answer from the targets must be in the same type, she said.
But she also rejected the argument put forward by Sylva’s lawyer, Mitchell Tilner of Horvitz & Levy, that an absolute compliance standard applies.
“The purpose of section 11041, subdivision (b)—to ensure equal emphasis of the statement of the reasons and the answer—was satisfied because neither the statement nor the answers were unduly emphasized,” Cooper wrote.
The case is Ruiz v. Sylva, B157433.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company