Voter fraud hearings in Vernon wrapped late last week, but not before one witness swore off ever voting again, and another complained about attorneys snooping into his Facebook page.
“I won’t vote again. This is crazy,” voter Jason Roberts said amid a lengthy round of questioning, than added, “obviously I voted for the wrong person, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting up here.”
Roberts’ claim that the challenges to his residency in Vernon were politically motivated was stricken from the official court record, along with several other colorful asides that peppered testimony during the three-day long hearing. The hearings were only supposed to determine if the challenged voters actually lived in Vernon when they voted. If they didn’t, then their votes would be thrown out, potentially affecting the outcome of the June 5 city council race.
But even the hearing officer, former judge Deborah Wong Yang, who pointed out that some of the testimony had gone “far afield,” appeared drawn in by the election drama bubbling underneath the hearing’s main questions of residency.
At one point she asked for clarification on the names of two candidates from a previous city council race so she could better follow testimony that seemed to imply some voters were being bullied over how their ballot votes were cast.
“I hate to ask, but who’s Mr. Ybarra? And who’s Mr. Newmire?” The two names belong to Michael Ybarra and Daniel Newmire, who squared off in the April city council election. Ybarra came out the winner, after several votes were invalidated, but Newmire has filed a lawsuit disputing the results.
Yang said she tried to go into the hearings without familiarizing herself with any of the city’s recent, tumultuous history, and even failed to recognize Reno Bellamy, whose lead in the June 5 race could be impacted by the ruling she makes.
Bellamy was the last to take the stand. He said the city and chamber’s efforts last fall to get people registered to vote was understandable, but after a certain point it got “obscene,” and even resulted in an “altercation” at his home. “I asked them, can you please stop knocking on my door? I get it. I’ve registered and we need to move on,” Bellamy said.
When Yang asked Bellamy’s attorney, Joe Maher, to explain his line of questioning, he said he wanted to know why voter residency challenges were made in the two recent city council races, and not during two previous elections.
He claims back when the city was threatened with disincorporation and Vernon’s cityhood was at stake, the chamber and city were only too happy to have the same voters who are now being challenged in these hearings cast ballots.
“The city of Vernon in a push to keep its incorporation, said come one, come all, we’ll take everybody… The city of Vernon used their votes. They used their votes for the very lifeblood of the city to stay incorporated, otherwise it would be gone,” said Maher.
Facing disincorporation, Vernon officials promised to implement a set of reforms, many requiring voter-approval, in return for the support of State Sen. Kevin de Leon who then worked to defeat AB 46, Assembly Speaker John Perez’s bill to dissolve any city in the state with fewer than 150 residents of which there is only one, Vernon.
Bellamy’s four vote lead over Martinez was certified by the County, which ran the election and refused to consider challenges from the Vernon business chamber. But after the chamber appealed to Vernon city officials, who according to the city charter have the final say in its elections, they decided to hold a hearing on the matter in accordance with an exciting city ordinance.
In the April election, the Vernon business chamber endorsed and campaigned for Ybarra. At the time they also challenged the residency of several voters, and because the city ran the election, the determinations were made before ballots were counted in the Vernon City Council chambers.
This time, the business chamber endorsed Bellamy’s opponent, Luz Martinez. Armed with an election law expert as their attorney and private investigators to establish the whereabouts of the voters, the business chamber again challenged several votes cast. Based on their findings, they say some of the challenged voters lied on the stand. Other witnesses seemed to have done the work for them, admitting on the stand to spending more of their time sleeping or living in other cities like Garden Grove, Lucerne Valley and even another state, Arizona.
Still, almost all of the challenged voters claimed they consider Vernon home and that they are being unfairly scrutinized. One voter, Victor Garcia, was shocked to see attorneys brandish printouts of his Facebook conversations, prompting him to accuse the attorneys of “stalking and harassing” him. The attorneys merely responded, “You need to set your privacy settings.”
The hearings have generated some indignation from voters at having their “right to vote” challenged and their personal lives on display. Several voters being challenged now, including members of the Gulla and Roberts families, showed up at a housing commission meeting several months ago angry that their votes were thrown out of the April election, said Bellamy, who sits on the commission. At the time, he feared that Michael Ybarra’s family was bullying residents, who live in city-owned housing and who voted for Newmire.
“As a housing commissioner, I’ve asked the Ybarras not to do that. I’ve claimed that they’ve been bullies,” he said.
Yang said she was “giving leeway” to the testimony about recent elections, because of the information could reveal how canvassing and the voter registration process was handled.
Attorneys for both sides are scheduled to turn in final briefs to Yang by Oct. 2.