Update: County postpones vote count to Monday. More below.
The City of Vernon had a brush with death last year. After 106 scandal-plagued years, the city narrowly escaped disincorporation at the hands of the Legislature, which had grown tired of the city's engrained habits of corruption.
The city was spared by the efforts of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce and Sen. Kevin De Leon, who feared that eliminating the city -- and its favorable tax and and utility rates -- would destroy thousands of jobs. De Leon offered the city a lifeline, in the form of an aggressive reform plan that the city readily accepted.
And yet, it remains to be seen whether Vernon (pop. 112) can govern itself. A key test was the June 5 City Council election. From the looks of it, some old habits die hard.
The election pitted Luz Martinez, a retired secretary in the Vernon Fire Department, against Reno Bellamy, a recent transplant from the city of Corona.
Martinez endorsed the De Leon reform plan. In her ballot statement, she said the reforms "are designed to make Vernon a better place to work and live."
Bellamy seems a little fuzzier. Asked about the reform plan, he told the Weekly, "I'd like to find some information out to dive more into it." (Here again is the link.)
The Chamber of Commerce supported Martinez and alleged that Bellamy was part of the "old guard." The "old guard," according to the Chamber, includes Councilman Rick Maisano and former Councilman Dan Newmire.
In April, Newmire lost his bid for re-election to the Chamber's candidate: Michael Ybarra. The vote was close, 26-19. And it could have been closer, if seven votes had not been thrown out, due to suspicions of voter fraud.
Leading up to the election, the Chamber had heard rumors that some registered voters might not live in Vernon. At one address, for example, nine voters were registered at a three-bedroom house. So the Chamber hired a private investigator. The investigator did some sleuthing, and ultimately alleged that some Vernon voters actually lived in Orange County and Arizona.
City officials held a hearing on election night, at which only one of the challenged voters appeared to defend himself. The officials ruled that the six votes should not be counted. A seventh vote was tossed due to mismatched signatures. Newmire then sued the city, seeking to overturn his defeat.
None of that deterred the suspected voters from casting ballots again in June. This time around, the Chamber challenged 10 ballots -- including all six that had been tossed out in the earlier election.
Four of the challenged voters are registered at the same two-bedroom apartment. The Chamber's investigator alleged that of the five voters registered at that apartment, only one actually lives there. The challenged voters include Dean Gulla, who used to work at a car wash managed by Councilman Rick Maisano.
The investigator alleged that Gulla actually lives in Lucerne Valley with his brother, Glenn Gulla, who also cast a ballot in the Vernon election. Of the five voters registered at the apartment, three registered on March 19, shortly before the April election.
Dean Logan, the county Registrar-Recorder, was tasked with administering the June election, because it was consolidated with the statewide primary. Logan decided to take a hands-off approach to the Chamber's allegations. Logan sequestered the ballots, to allow time for the Chamber to challenge them in court, but announced that unless directed otherwise, he would count them on Friday, June 22.
As the tally stands now, Luz Martinez -- the Chamber's pick -- leads Reno Bellamy by six votes, 30-24. If the 10 ballots are counted on Friday, Bellamy may well emerge the winner.
Fred Woocher, the Chamber's attorney, has asked the Vernon City Council to assert its authority over the election, and direct the Registrar to hold off on counting the disputed ballots until the city holds a hearing to determine their validity.
But at a special meeting Wednesday afternoon,
the City Council seemed reluctant to do that without a court order. Instead,
the council opted to ask the Registrar to hold off on counting the
challenged ballots until June 29, which would give the Chamber a little extra time to
seek a court order requiring Vernon to hold the hearing.
Registrar-Recorder's Office had no immediate response to the council's
request. The vote must be certified by July 3, when the
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county is required to report its results to the state.
In the meantime, the Vernon election -- and perhaps the success or failure of the city's reform plan, and with it the future of the city -- hang in the balance.
"It's exhausting just waiting," Bellamy said.
Update, 3 p.m.: Dean Logan, the Registrar-Recorder, sent a letter this morning to Vernon City Hall stating that he will delay the vote count until 1 p.m. Monday. He said he would not agree to any further postponement, absent a court order directing him to hold off.