The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, and the law firm of Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg, P.C. (Bird Marella), represented Chin Ho Liao in a hearing before the San Gabriel City Council to determine Liao’s eligibility to serve on the council.
Liao was the second-highest vote winner in the March 5 election, in which the top three candidates would win seats on the City Council. Despite Liao’s victory, the City Council seated the first- and third-place candidates, incumbent Kevin Sawkins and challenger Jason Pu, but voted against seating Liao because of allegations by a single individual, local resident Fred Paine, regarding Liao’s residency.
This vote denying Liao a seat on the council was taken by the previously constituted council, which included two outbound incumbents — Mario De La Torre and David Gutierrez — who had been defeated in the March election, having lost to Liao.
Instead of seating Liao or appointing a neutral third party to adjudicate the claim, and despite the potential conflict of interest, the council decided to hold a hearing April 27 on whether the challenge to Liao’s residency is valid. The council will issue a decision regarding the residency claim after meeting again on May 6.
“I was duly elected to the San Gabriel City Council on March 5, 2013,” Liao said. “The people of San Gabriel voted for me and showed that they believe in my qualifications to serve on the City Council. For the last 24 years, I have dedicated my life to serving the people of San Gabriel and working to improve our community. I have been living in San Gabriel and intend to remain in San Gabriel, regardless of whether I am ultimately seated on the City Council, so that I can continue serving the community. These attempts to prevent me from being installed as a city councilmember are outrageous and shameful.”
Paine accuses Liao of being a carpetbagger who actually lives outside the city limits. APALC argues that the allegations are meritless, and that those who voted against seating Liao are interfering with the electoral process on the basis of a single individual’s claims.
Further, APALC argues that the City Council cannot properly determine the issue of Liao’s residency because of the body’s present composition. The current council includes Sawkins, who was Liao’s leading opponent in the election, and John Harrington and Juli Costanzo, who endorsed Sawkins and the two incumbents who lost in the March election.
Liao is participating in the hearing under protest in the interest of expediency, but has also filed a lawsuit against the city.
Deanna Kitamura, senior staff attorney with APALC’s Voting Rights Project, said, “Although over 60 percent of San Gabriel residents are Asian American, immediately prior to the March election there were no Asian American members of the City Council. The election was historic because two Asian American candidates won office, including Mr. Liao. Also significantly, voter participation in the election increased by 12 percent compared to the city’s election in March 2011. The election should have been a celebration of new participation in the city’s democracy. But because of actions taken by the council, residents of the city who voted to have Mr. Liao represent them as their councilmember are now being told that their votes don’t matter, casting a shadow over the political process.”
Liao won the votes of 1,714 residents and, according to Nilay U. Vora of Bird Marella, the council is unjustly denying Liao’s right to take his seat. “This hearing not only violates Mr. Liao’s rights,” Vora said, “but also ignores the will of the voters of San Gabriel. It is a fundamental right to participate in the political process by running for elected office. Mr. Liao was deemed qualified to stand for this election by the San Gabriel city clerk and was elected by the people of San Gabriel.
“Elections are the cornerstone of democracy, and the San Gabriel City Council’s refusal to honor the results of this election has caused unnecessary drama and weakened the voice of the people of San Gabriel. This violation of the people’s will and Mr. Liao’s rights must end. We insist that Mr. Liao be installed immediately.”
Elected officials who plan to speak Friday at a press conference in support of Liao include Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), Assemblymember Ed Chau (D-Alhambra), State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) and Los Angeles Community College District Trustee-elect Mike Eng.