Chin Ho Liao, the second-highest vote-getter in last month's City Council
election in San Gabriel, is suing the city after the incumbent council
refused to seat him in order to investigate a resident's challenge
of his residency.
Five candidates ran for three seats in the hotly contested March 5 election.
Liao, Jason Pu and incumbent Mayor Kevin Sawkins garnered the most votes.
Incumbents Mario De La Torre and David Gutierrez were defeated.
But resident Fred Paine filed a complaint accusing Liao of living outside
the city limits. In responding to Paine's complaint at last week's
meeting, the council considered three options: Seat Liao anyway, refer
the matter to a third party or conduct its own investigation.
De La Torre, Gutierrez and Sawkins, who ran for reelection as a bloc, voted
against seating Liao and for launching an investigation. Councilman John
Harrington, who endorsed the incumbents' bloc, did as well. Councilwoman
Juli Costanzo was the lone dissenting vote.
As part of the same action, the council directed staff to investigate complaints
about poll workers in two precincts making recommendations to voters.
It was unclear whether these complaints were related to Liao.
Liao's complaint said the City Council "took it upon itself"
to decide the merits of the complaints.
"Respondents have used the pretext of unsupported allegations made
by a single individual to derail a state-mandated process ... the result
is chaos, frustration and the resulting disenfranchisement of thousands
of San Gabriel residents," Liao's complaint says.
His petition, granted Wednesday, asks the court to compel the city to seat
him or appear at a later hearing to explain why. Liao's attorney,
Stephen Kaufman, said he was "extremely pleased" with the judge's decision.
Accordingly, the council must seat Liao or appear at a hearing on the matter,
set for May 14.
"Interestingly enough, three of the council members defeated by Mr.
Liao voted not to seat him," Kaufman said. "Sounds like sour
grapes to me."
Bryce Gee, an attorney for San Gabriel, said the city was also pleased
because the judge set a hearing date that gives the city time to complete
its own investigation, which Gee took as an implicit endorsement of the
city's authority over the issue.
"The judge postponed making a decision on Mr. Liao's lawsuit until
May 14 in order to give the city enough time to conduct a public hearing
on Mr. Liao's qualifications to serve as a City Council member,"
Gee said in a statement.
The city has not yet set a hearing to determine Liao's qualifications,
said City Manager Steven Preston. City staff must create a process and
get it approved by the council before the investigation can begin.
Preston said he has not encountered this kind of challenge in his 14 years
working with the city. Election complaints are typically resolved by city
staff; but this year, with low turnout and lots of provisional voting,
was a "unique" situation.
"It is important to know that the city did not initiate these complaints,
but only responded to them in accordance with our policy," Preston
wrote in an email.
Paine, the resident contesting Liao's residency, also filed his complaint
with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. A spokeswoman
there said the complaint was under review as the office determines whether
a full-fledged investigation is warranted.