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South Gate Voters Clean House

Ousted Robles Said He May Seek Office Again

UPDATED: 7:26 a.m. PST January 29, 2003

Voters in South Gate overwhelmingly ousted the mayor and three other top officials who were accused of depleting the city coffers of nearly $8 million.

In a Tuesday recall election monitored by state officials, more than 80 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of removing Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, Councilwoman Maria Benavides and Treasurer Albert Robles. Residents of the city of 98,000 about 10 miles south of downtown Los Angeles also voted to replace each of the four ejected officials.

"There has been so much fraud," Maria Puga, 44, said as she took a break from work as an office manager to vote at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. "We have got to clean up the image of this city. It's going to take time but it's embarrassing the reputation this city has now."

"I'm tired of having to pay their legal bills," said one resident who turned out for the recall vote.

The secretary of state's office monitored the vote after some expressed concerns of intimidation following a bitter recall campaign. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley acknowledged such monitoring was "extreme" but said the political situation warranted the action.

Secretary of State spokesman Shad Balch said late Tuesday that results from all 15 precincts were tallied and there appeared to be no irregularities.

South Gate gained notoriety last year after city officials were accused of interfering with an earlier recall effort, and Gov. Gray Davis gave Los Angeles County control over the city's special elections.

"A few years ago, this city had money. Now these corrupt politicians have spent it all," 63-year-old Adelma Aguilera, a retired seamstress, said as state officials in gray suits and sunglasses arrived at the polls to oversee voting.

At the top of the recall list was Robles, who is facing assault weapons possession charges. Earlier this month, a judge dismissed charges that Robles threatened four people, including two state legislators.

The ousted treasurer, who was recalled by the widest margin, 84 percent, or 6,499 votes in favor to 1,237 against, was gracious in defeat.

"With this vote, the people have spoken and it is now accepted by me as the law of the land. They want new leadership. They want a change," he said.

Robles said he harbored no ill will toward his opponents and planned to play racquetball next week with a police officer who led the recall campaign. He will continue to live in South Gate, indicating he might seek office again.

Voters elected Rudy Navarro to replace Robles. They replaced Ruvalcaba as mayor with Maria Davila and Moriel as vice mayor with Steven Gutierrez. Gregory Martinez was chosen to replace Benavides on the City Council.

The South Gate Police Association, which spearheaded the recall, gave a long list of reasons. They included: council members' decisions to strip the city clerk of most of her duties; authorizing increases in their own salaries by 2,000 percent and the spending of nearly $8 million in city reserves, including more than $1 million on Robles' criminal trial costs.

Recall opponents said the union was attempting to block efforts to rein in rogue officers.

"The mayor became strict with the police. It's the police, and the rich people who are in favor of this," said homemaker Rocio Aguilar, 37, who handed out flyers supporting Robles, Ruvalcaba, Moriel, and Benavides.

Aguilar said the officials had worked hard to improve after-school tutoring programs for her three children.

Even with the spotlight on them, however, city officials continued to pass a series of questionable measures, including loans to Robles' former business associates, one of whom is under investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's public integrity unit.

Leading up to the election, City Hall provided one month's free trash pickup, medical care for some and even raffled off a three-bedroom home.

Robles defended the promotions.

"The council decided to do some innovative things. They raffled a home to bring attention to the shortage of housing in California," he said.

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