As the signature deadline approaches in the campaign to oust three Fullerton City Council members, there are name-calling, accusations of illegal actions and allegations that underlying motives don’t jibe with the stated intent of the recall effort.
The recall also is the most recent chapter in a decades-old battle between two Republican factions in Fullerton.
The recall effort, led by Anthony Bushala, the Fullerton developer who also runs the blog “Friends for Fullerton’s Future,” originally seemed to be a response to the fatal beating of Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police officers.
But apart from the effort’s opening weeks in September, Thomas has largely been an afterthought.
Instead, campaign signs, door hangers and other materials list an array of local issues, including pensions, redevelopment, a long-standing water fee and crowded schools as reasons for voters to seek the recall of former Mayor Richard Jones and council members Pat McKinley and Don Bankhead.
But despite the change in focus, the recall’s backers say they are confident they’ll collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Meanwhile, recall opponents say they are still determined to keep it off.
“We will succeed,” declared Chris Thompson, who is running the recall campaign for Bushala and spoke on behalf of both men. “We will qualify this. There is zero percent chance that we won’t turn in sufficient signatures.”
The recall supporters have until Feb. 16 to submit 10,554 valid voter signatures in order for the recall to go onto the June ballot.
In the meantime, both sides face a Jan. 31 deadline to file reports stating how much money they’ve spent either supporting or fighting the recall and where the money went.
Thompson, a member of the Fullerton School District Board of Trustees, said he is paid less than $5,000 a month by Bushala. He said for strategic reasons he didn’t want to specify how close the recall effort is to its goal.
Opponents of the recall have sent Fullerton voters cards that allow those who have signed recall petitions to tell the city clerk they want their names removed.
Fullerton City Councilman Bruce Whitaker, an aide to Republican Assemblyman Chris Norby, said that because of the anti-recall group’s efforts to nullify signatures, it’s hard for anyone to know how many signatures the petitions actually contain.
Whitaker was part of a 1994 recall effort that ousted the council majority, including Bankhead. But voters returned Bankhead to the council at the next election. Norby, Whitaker’s current boss, was on the City Council at the time but not a target of the recall.
“Officially, I’m neutral on this one,” said Whitaker. “It’s not appropriate for one city official to seek the removal of another.”
But, Whitaker said, “it’s not easy” to gather enough valid signatures to force a recall vote on three council members.
Fullerton Planning Commissioner Larry Bennett, a financial advisor who said he is working for free to fight the recall, said he has no idea whether the recall group will meet its goal for signatures.
“I don’t think anyone knows, either our side or their side,” he said. “Everybody’s flying a little blind, I would say.”
The most recent issue in the dispute centered on how seriously voters should consider “citizen arrests” of Bushala, Thompson and others while gathering signatures outside Albertsons supermarkets in Fullerton.
“Documents secured through the California Public Records Act and interviews with the complaining parties indicate that seven citizens’ arrests of Bushala, Thompson, and their paid circulators have occurred since Sept. 9, when the recall petitions were certified for circulation,” read an announcement on the Protect Fullerton-Recall NO website.
But Thompson, in a post on The Fullerton Recall website, declared, “There are NO pending cases against Tony, myself or any of our signature gatherers.” He stated that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas declined to file any charges after business property owners filed complaints.
Rackauckas’ office didn’t return calls.
Lila Rodriquez, external communications manager for Albertsons, said there were instances when recall signature gatherers “were a big disturbance and really kind of harassing customers going in and out.”
She said the grocery chain has a “very strict policy” governing those who want to raise money for charity or use company property for other purposes.
“We asked them to leave, and they left,” she said.
Thompson said the recall campaign moved from Kelly Thomas to other issues because “when you’re trying to recall three popularly elected councilmen, it would be foolish not to address all issues.” He said Kelly Thomas’ death was “the most egregious example of poor leadership.”
Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, said he supports the recall for one reason: “It’s not what they [the three council members] did. It’s what they didn’t do. They wouldn’t communicate to the public. They wouldn’t communicate to me. They just sat there with those cold looks. … They treated the whole thing wrong.”
But he’s not thrilled with Bushala and Thompson either. “I think, honestly, they were using Kelly as a platform.”
He said “bad blood” existed between the Bushala and council camps before his son’s death. “Then, with all of this with Kelly,” it gave them ammunition to use in a recall that really is about issues that have nothing to do with Kelly Thomas.
“I haven’t talked to them in quite awhile,” Ron Thomas said last week. The recall is “clearly a separate agenda item for them.”