Update below, Wednesday afternoon: Councilman Bill Davis interrupts Italian vacation to make quorum, establish a contest procedure.
The outcome of the hotly contested Vernon City Council election flipped today, after county officials opened and counted 10 ballots from voters whose residence has been called into question.
As of this morning, Luz Martinez was clinging to a six-vote lead over Reno Bellamy, 30-24. But this afternoon, the county added the 10 ballots that had previously been set aside due to a challenge from the Vernon Chamber of Commerce. Lo and behold, Bellamy got all 10 votes, putting him ahead, 34-30.
The Chamber continues to believe that those voters do not live in Vernon, and that some live as far away as Arizona.
"We believe there's blatant voter fraud," said Marisa Olguin, the Chamber president, who said her organization is still plotting its next move. "The true Vernon electorate -- their votes are getting hijacked."
Vernon's tiny electorate -- there are only 75 registered voters -- makes the city uniquely vulnerable to election fraud. In a close race, just a few votes can tip the balance either way.
The Chamber of Commerce has been pushing for reforms, in hopes of staving off disincorporation -- which would mean higher tax and utility rates. The Chamber backed Martinez in the June 5 election, to replace retired Mayor Hilario Gonzalez. On her ballot statement, Martinez endorsed the reforms. By contrast, Bellamy indicated to the Weekly last week that he has not read the reform proposals.
The Chamber hired a private investigator earlier this spring, after hearing suspicions that some registered voters did not live in the city. For example, in one small, two-bedroom apartment, five people are registered to vote. The investigator called some of the voters, spoke to their relatives and neighbors, and tracked them down through public records and Facebook. The investigator ultimately concluded that several lived in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and that two live in Arizona.
When 10 of those voters cast ballots in the June election, the Chamber filed a challenge with the county Registrar. The Registrar dismissed the challenges, because the evidence presented was insufficient, but agreed to hold on to the ballots for two weeks so that the Chamber could seek relief in court.
The Chamber has since been working with friendly Vernon council members to try to establish a procedure to formally contest the ballots at City Hall. This morning, the council attempted to hold an emergency meeting to set up a procedure to contest the election results. But Councilman Rick Maisano -- an ally of Bellamy's -- did not attend the meeting. The meeting was canceled due to lack of a quorum.
"He knew about it, but he decided not to show up," Olguin said.
Maisano did not return a call seeking comment.
Without a contest procedure in place, it's not clear what the Chamber's next step will be. The Chamber may opt to wait until Bellamy is seated before lodging a protest with the council.
"We want to make sure the election is clean," Olguin said. "Our goal is to make sure the voice of the true Vernon voter is heard."
Update: Fred Woocher, the attorney for the Chamber, says that the Chamber plans to move forward with a contest of the election before the winner is seated.
"I think we're still on track," Woocher said. "They've recognized they have the obligation to hold a contest. We're hopeful the lack of a quorum was a glitch."
Update 2, Wednesday afternoon: High drama in Vernon today, as Councilman Bill Davis was forced to fly back from Italy to help set up a procedure to challenge the election results.
The council needs three members to make quorum. Councilman Rick Maisano has been staying away from City Hall, in an apparent effort to prevent the council majority from holding a meeting and challenging the result.
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With Davis out of the country and Maisano absent, the council was unable to make quorum on Monday. So Davis interrupted his vacation and flew back for today's special meeting.
Maisano was absent again, but the council was able to meet and voted 3-0 to establish a procedure to contest the election.
It now appears that the Chamber of Commerce will get to challenge the outcome at a hearing sometime in mid-July.
Davis is now heading back to Italy.