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San Gabriel councilman-elect sues city for declining to seat him

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.

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