Ybarra Unseats Incumbent Amid Drama in Vernon Election Count

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

The vote count Tuesday night should have only taken a few minutes, but in the ongoing saga that is Vernon politics, vote challenges and hours of testimony made this election anything but routine.

The April 10 election, Vernon’s first contested race in years, pitted long time resident Michael Ybarra against incumbent Councilman Daniel Newmire.

Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOLYbarra Triunfa en Medio de Drama de Conteo de Votos en Vernon

The election was supposed to show that the scandal-plagued city had reformed its ways, but on Tuesday, the city was once again dealing with allegations of fraud.

Ybarra would eventually be declared the unofficial winner, but not before hours of drama and courtroom-like testimony was concluded.

The Vernon Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago started raising questions about a rash of new voter registrations in the mostly industrial city with only about 100 or so residents.

Chamber President Marisa Olguin, right, consults with attorneys before challenging several registered voters in Vernon. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

After the chamber’s attorney, Frederic Woocher, informed them that he had evidence showing several of the city’s registered voters do not live in Vernon, the city-appointed canvassing board decided to delay the vote count and hold a hearing on Woocher’s allegations.

By the end of what turned into two hours of testimony and deliberations, the board had thrown out six ballots after concluding the voters do not live in Vernon, and two others flagged by the city clerk because the signatures on the ballots were inconsistent with those on the voters’ registration applications.

The chamber came to the meeting armed with evidence and testimony to challenge as many as 21 voters, but only seven actually submitted ballots.
The board now had 43 ballots — plus two provisional ballots that still need to be verified by the county — left to count. It took less than five minutes to tally up the votes. With eight ballots thrown out, Ybarra was the unofficial winner, beating Newmire 24 to 19. (UPDATE: The two provisional ballots were counted April 12, and the updated votes are Ybarra with 26, and Newmire with 19).

Ybarra, along with another councilman to be elected in June, could prove critical in major decisions facing the city in upcoming weeks, including a proposed parcel tax and utility rate hike, both of which could increase the cost of doing business in Vernon.

Ybarra opposes the parcel tax and was backed by the Committee to Elect Leaders of Reform, a political action committee led by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce.

The newly formed city council will also select a new city attorney to replace the attorney who resigned in 2010. The council also has the authority to choose a city administrator, police chief, and fire chief.

The five votes separating the two candidates Tuesday, proved a wide margin in a city with just 76 registered voters: 53 cast ballots.

“Vernon is unique” because a small number of voters can influence the election, and compared to Los Angeles, where there is likely also instances of voter fraud, “you’re not going to have an election that hinges on five votes, one way or the other,” Woocher said.

Chamber President Marisa Olguin and members of the business chamber were in high spirits following the vote outcome that favored Ybarra.

It is “uncharacteristic” of the chamber to endorse city council candidates, Olguin said, but they knew “the election was critical” to the city’s path to reform.

The challenges submitted by the chamber on Election Day were the culmination of several weeks of intense investigation into an unusual up-tick in people registering to vote in Vernon. “The registrations that were cropping up … it was very peculiar,” Olguin said.

Their investigation into the matter began “initially through walking and getting to know voters, then it got extensive, looking into Facebook, looking into DMV plates, things like that,” she said.

The city seemed likewise prepared for the chambers’ challenges, calling in a court reporter to record the proceedings, and appointing a canvassing board that consisted of three top city officials including the police chief, a former city manager of Pasadena, and the president of a city clerk consulting firm.

Both residents and members of the chamber of commerce were out in force, with several being called on to provide testimony on what they knew about the voters whose residencies were being challenged.

Dana Reed, the city’s counsel, explained the rules for reviewing vote challenges.

Reed said that challengers have to provide “extraordinary proof,” especially when those being challenged are not present. It was unclear what constitutes “extraordinary proof.”

During testimony, voter Gary Sabara Jr. told the panel that he does not live in any one place, but spends a couple nights a week in Vernon at the home of Housing Commissioner Gabriel Early. The canvassing board approved the challenge, invalidating Sabara’s vote.

A voter, Gary Sabara Jr., left, listens to a recitation of applicable election laws before testifying and responding to the canvassing board’s questions. His ballot was invalidated after he said he did not live in any one place. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

Also challenged was Victor Garcia, but the city clerk told the board that Garcia’s registration had already been thrown out because his signatures did not match.

Woocher next challenged the recent registrations of members of the Roberts family, with the chamber’s attorney providing evidence that members of the family admitted to living in Arizona when investigators contacted them on their cell phone.

The chamber’s attorney also challenged two voters both with the last names Gulla, who were also actively registered in Lucerne Valley in San Bernardino County.

The canvassing board was unanimous in accepting all of the chamber’s challenges after questioning the witnesses and in the instance of Sabara, the voter himself.

If there are no challenges to Tuesday night’s count, Ybarra could be following in the footsteps of his father, Thomas Ybarra, a 43-year Vernon councilman who resigned in 2009, just six months before his death.

Newmire is expected to cede his seat to Ybarra, who could be sworn in as early as the next city council meeting, according to City Clerk Willard Yamaguchi. The city must first complete a canvassing process, which includes re-checking each ballot and recounting the votes.

Ybarra, whose family has lived in the Vernon area for over a hundred years, talked about his deep, local roots at a recent candidates forum. Ybarra worked at a Vernon business, and has a background in manufacturing and aerospace industry quality control. He also owns property in Vernon, so he would also be impacted by the parcel tax proposal. He and many members of his family attended Vernon City Elementary School.

Ybarra’s opponent Daniel Newmire was appointed to the city council in 2009. He was born in Alhambra, raised in the San Gabriel Valley, and spent several years out of the state before moving to Vernon in 2007.

At a recent candidate’s forum, Newmire said he was exposed to Vernon when he was six years old while visiting his grandfather and great uncle’s repair and maintenance shop in nearby Huntington Park.

There is still a possibility the process could be delayed after Tuesday night’s voter registration challenges and other voter fraud issues that have surfaced in the weeks leading up to the election.

The city is investigating registered voters who have addresses that do not exist, the high number of recent voter registrations using the address of a small home, and other suspicious circumstances.

The city’s “independent ethics monitor” John Van de Kamp is leading the investigation and will turn over the results to the District Attorney’s office.

Woocher says the D.A. may not be interested in pursuing the individuals the chamber challenged Tuesday night, but “what [county prosecutors] would be more interested in is if somebody put them up to it” and if it were a “widespread effort by someone to affect the outcome.”

He said the chamber will be watching the upcoming June election closely. “I think it’s pretty clear that this was a divided city, and in a small town everybody seems to know which camp certain people were in and I do believe this was a concerted effort by one side to buttress the number of votes that they would get,” he said.

Ybarra said he had his suspicions about certain voters in previous elections, and even tried challenging some votes in last November’s election. I didn’t have the information the lawyers had, so I couldn’t challenge them that way. But the results came back, I had to prove it,” he said, adding, “I lived hear all my life. I know my neighbors.”

Newmire was not present at Tuesday night’s ballot count but can still request a recount. The challenges accepted by the canvassing board can also be contested in court. Newmire did not return a phone call EGP made to his home Tuesday afternoon.

Gloria Alvarez contributed to this story.

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April 11, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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