VIDEO CLIPS FROM CITY COUNCIL meetings don't usually achieve cult status, but Carson isn't just any city and its council may be one of the most dysfunctional, and entertaining, around. Viewed on YouTube more than 500,000 times, a 43-second clip shows a hefty Latino woman walking away from the podium, then swatting an older blond woman on the back of the head with a handful of papers.
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The “victim” pauses, then, with what YouTube viewers dub an “R2-D2 scream,” falls to the floor and rolls in seemingly agonizing pain. “I love how she gasped, yelled, held her head and climbed down to the floor and acted like some dinosaur bit off a chunk of her skull,” wrote one of the more than 600 viewers who commented on the video in both English and Spanish.
“I haven't laughed this hard in years and years. The video's a riot,” wrote another, and, somebody added, “I wish the city council in our town could be this exciting.”
The “Carson City Council Smack” — the blonde was awarded a best-actress “Keithie” by viewers of Countdown With Keith Olbermann — is bringing fresh, unwanted national prominence to a tattered and industrialized Los Angeles suburb best known as the home of the L.A. Galaxy. But behind the February 6, 2007, videotape is the story of a vicious fight for control of this town of 95,000, still reeling from an FBI sting in the first half of the decade that unveiled a corrupt City Hall — and led to indictments of two former mayors and most of the City Council.
The “assailant” in the year-old video, who was charged by the Los Angeles District Attorney with misdemeanor battery, is former mayor Vera Robles DeWitt, a bail bondswoman who, the day before, had submitted 12,000 signatures in her effort to recall Carson Mayor Jim Dear.
The “victim” is Jan Schaefer, an elderly trailer-park resident appointed by Mayor Dear to the city's powerful Public Works Commission and one of the mayor's staunchest supporters.
And the lead is played by Dear, Carson's 55-year-old mayor, who from his seat at the head of the council dais last February promptly asked police to arrest DeWitt, who was Carson's first Latina mayor in the 1980s, but who lost her seat in 1992. Dear, who publicly refers to her as “Vera 'The Evil' DeWitt,” added his own melodrama to the incident, calling for a doctor to administer to Schaefer and falsely claiming she was hit “right in the eye.”
The strands in this petty drama, which has left the residents of Carson wondering whether they are getting decent services like crime protection while feuding parties duke things out, are in the hands of a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who will decide this summer whether Carson City Clerk Helen Kawagoe, California's longest-standing elected official, who has held the office for 34 years, correctly counted the signatures on the Dear recall petitions.
Kawagoe, who refuses to divulge her age, recently prevailed in striking from the court record allegations by DeWitt and her followers that Kawagoe had grown too “feeble-minded” to accurately count the signatures seeking to put the Dear recall on the ballot.
The YouTube video is not DeWitt's first brush with video fame. It was in the lobby of her bail-bond office — across the street from Carson City Hall — that Samuel L. Jackson's character was gunned down in Quentin Tarantino's blaxploitation tribute, Jackie Brown, whose poster hangs on the wall.
The former mayor, who agreed to talk to L.A. Weekly after declining comment for months, despite invitations from Inside Edition and Dr. Phil, says she cringes at the thought of having to view the video, and insists that Schaefer called her a dirty name. “She probably looked at the mayor [for her cue] and decided to go for it,” DeWitt complains.
Last fall, DeWitt had to fight a charge of contempt of court after she violated a restraining order that barred her from coming within three yards of Schaefer. The incident unfolded at a courtroom hearing when DeWitt stepped behind Schaefer's seat to retrieve her purse, and Schaefer's friends shouted “Nine feet! Nine feet!” and accusingly cried out, “She did it again! She did it again!”
Now, DeWitt says, “my lawyer can't represent me in the restraining order, because we had to call him as a witness.”
DeWitt later won her contempt hearing, but, putting a finer point on the ridiculousness of Carson city politics, the judge told her to wait in court until Schaefer and her coterie had safely entered the elevator. “They make her out to be a little old grandma,” says DeWitt scornfully. “She's not a sweet little patootie.”
By January 18, DeWitt must decide whether to stand trial and clear her name or accept the district attorney's plea bargain. She wants to plead to a “disturbing the peace” charge and get the restraining order lifted, while the D.A. is pressing for a tougher deal. DeWitt sees a larger battle, in which she could face jail time and lose her bondswoman license, granted by the state, all because she wants Dear out. “It's scary. This is oppressive,” she says. “I'm paying the price for recalling this guy.”
DEWITT HAS SPENT $45,000 to recall Mayor Dear, the latest upheaval in a city wracked by scandals that have left its citizens disillusioned and deeply suspicious. Three years ago, Daryl Sweeney, Carson's colorful and popular mayor, was sentenced to 71 months in prison for acting as ringleader in a bribery scheme involving the city's biggest trash hauler.
Sweeney and other city leaders sold their votes for $600,000 — which officials at Browning/Ferris Industries agreed to pay to land a 10-year, $60 million contract. Sweeney was the first of two mayors and two council members nabbed during a secret federal probe launched in 2000. Former council members Raunda Frank and Manuel Ontal pleaded guilty, along with former mayor Pete Fajardo.
Their conversations, taped when a council member wore a wire, only confirmed what Carson residents suspected all along — something was rotten at City Hall. Residents had long complained that the City Council spent hours in meetings closed to the public, forcing residents to “wait hours to speak,” recalls Sharon Gilpin, who has worked as a political consultant for DeWitt. When the council emerged from its closed-door meetings, its public votes were like “a dance” in which “the motions were passed in seconds.”
Gilpin says that with garbage rates climbing in Carson, DeWitt and other residents “thought there should be a bidding process to get competition. …They thought it was a symptom of corruption.”
And it turned out they were right. Literally a dumpsite for Los Angeles' garbage, Carson didn't become incorporated until 1968, when working-class black residents decided to form a new city. But while powerful industries now call Carson home, including the BP refinery that provides a third of the gasoline used in Southern California, the city is cash poor. Carson is considered the most ethnically and racially rich medium-sized city in California — its residents are evenly divided among black, Latino, white and Asian. But it has a $200 million annual budget dwarfed by such cities as Santa Monica, with a $435 million annual budget for a smaller population of 84,000.
With Carson's industrial air pollution and high rates of childhood asthma, Gilpin says “Vera's group asked for minimal levels of air cleaning, but the council gave short shrift to any concerns of the community. Industry has pretty much gotten a pass.”
The city's voters were aching for change, and in 2004 Dear won a special election as a reform candidate replacing the corrupt Sweeney. In 2005, Dear was re-elected in a landslide with the highest vote total in the city's history. “I won despite the steamroller juggernaut of power,” says Dear, who is white, and whose brother Donald was mayor of nearby Gardena for 19 years. “I also went cross-cultural. My message of prosperity and development resonated with the voters.”
With a three-vote majority on a five-member City Council, Dear began making political appointments to various city commissions — an action typical of any mayor. But critics say Dear also began using a tactic not seen in normal city politics: hitting the “mute” button installed on the council dais to shut up Carson residents who attacked him.
“When a citizen comes up to speak and he doesn't like it, he mutes it,” DeWitt says. “Now he's doing it to council members. …He runs a dictatorship in this city.”
THE TOUCHY MAYOR would rather focus on his ambitious plans than his dissent-unfriendly behavior. He likes to point to commendations on his wall that he says are a testament to his popularity. “Look here,” Dear says, pointing to a stack behind a chair. “These are the ones I haven't put up on the walls. There's no room.”
His office is also adorned with 5-foot-tall aerial depictions of Carson which show big, round shapes — oil-tank farms and refineries that stretch along Carson's thoroughfares. A vacant swath near the northwestern corner — “the biggest undeveloped parcel in urban Los Angeles adjacent to a freeway” — is where Dear hopes developers will erect one of the largest shopping centers in California. He hopes to annex 2,000 acres to the northeast known as Rancho Dominguez — and he just might prevail, since his brother Donald sits on the powerful regional commission that will recommend to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors whether Carson, Long Beach or Compton gets the nod to annex the area.
Says Dear, “You would drive by on the freeway and have no reason to get off. Now we're changing that.”
Carson's transformation was under way before Dear took office, with the opening in 2003 of the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, a soccer and world-class tennis stadium with North America's only velodrome for Olympic-class bicycle racing. The city was seen in 140 countries when it hosted two 2003 Women's World Cup Soccer matches after the SARS virus outbreak in China forced the games to move. “You remember the woman who took her blouse off (during the games)?” Dear asks. “She did that in Carson.”
But Dear's vision — which also includes using new revenue to make Carson safer, could be in jeopardy. Last March, the mayor lost control of the council when council member Julie Ruiz-Raber, his ally, failed to get re-elected by just 300 votes. After that, Dear's council opponents began blocking his appointments to city commissions. “It's all about power,” says Ruiz-Raber, who teaches belly dancing for a living. “They want to strip the mayor of all power. We were working with the majority of the city.” Now, she says, “It is truly dysfunctional.”
A squabble over 85 signatures has landed the recall effort against Dear in court. Although DeWitt filed more than 12,000 signatures to put the recall on the ballot, Kawagoe found the effort to be 85 signatures short after 868 signatures were withdrawn by voters who had originally signed the petition.
DeWitt wants a judge to decide if the withdrawn signatures — many of them withdrawn during a huge dessert event sponsored by the mayor — were properly dated. She believes many of those who signed withdrawal cards didn't know what they were signing and did so before they had signed the Dear recall petitions.
“He sent, like, 5,000 invitations [saying] 'Get your picture with the mayor, sign this card,'” says DeWitt. “The next day, he turned in 1,700 cards signed. I don't think they were clean.”
The mayor retorts that if anyone played dirty, it was Vera “The Evil” DeWitt — that's what Dear openly calls her as he eats an omelet at the IHOP across from City Hall. DeWitt, he says, hired paid signature gatherers from as far away as Utah and Pennsylvania to amass the signatures. “They will say and do anything,” he complains. “Now they're grasping at straws.”
For her part, elections official Kawagoe says she has fairly performed her job. She seems to have a secret that has allowed her to ride out the storms in Carson for the past 34 years. “I'm not on anybody's side,” says Kawagoe, who has jokingly told her workers not to step on her body if they find her dead. “I go by the book, I follow the rules, and that's why I've survived.”