California councilmen ousted over police beating

LOS ANGELES Wed Jun 6, 2012 4:15am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three city councilmen accused of a failure of leadership after the fatal beating of a mentally ill homeless man by police in the southern California city of Fullerton were ousted in a recall election on Tuesday, final returns showed.

Recall organizers said Fullerton councilmen Dick Jones, Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley put the interests of police over the community, allowing a culture of lax oversight that ultimately contributed to the death of 37-year-old transient Kelly Thomas.

Critics said the three men also did little in response to a furor that erupted after video surfaced of the confrontation last July between six Fullerton police officers and Thomas, touching off protests and making national headlines.

One clip of the incident showed Thomas, who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, lying on the ground screaming "They're killing me" as several police officers swarmed over him, delivering multiple blows and Taser shocks.

With all 87 precincts reporting, the ouster of Jones, Bankhead and McKinley drew support from about two-thirds of the voters who cast ballots in the recall race, said Larry Bennett, chairman of the campaign committee formed on behalf of the three councilmen. "We took a thumping," he told Reuters.

The ballot tally showed planning commissioner Travis Kiger leading a race to replace Jones, businessman Greg Sebourn heading a field of contenders to succeed Bankhead and business attorney Doug Chaffee as the front-runner to fill out the remainder of McKinley's term.

"The citizens of Fullerton have spoken loud and clear," said Tony Bushala, vice president of a historical restoration company who spent $20,000 of his own money to spearhead the recall campaign. He said the outcome demonstrated the desire of voters for greater accountability by municipal leaders.

Opponents of the recall effort insisted it represented a power grab by a wealthy real estate developer who they accused of exploiting controversy over Thomas' death.

All three council members alluded to Bushala without referring to him by name in their ballot statements.

"Our city is under attack by a local developer who wants to control Fullerton by getting his people on council," McKinley wrote. "He has spent almost a quarter-million dollars to recall me. Why? Because I represent the entire city and not just his radical causes."

Bushala denied that his campaign contributions and support of political causes had anything to do with his business.

"I've never asked the City Council to do anything special for me," he said.

Two Fullerton police officers have been ordered to stand trial on homicide charges stemming from the beating of Thomas.

Officer Manuel Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and faces 15 years to life in prison if convicted.

Corporal Jay Cicinelli, 40, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and the use of excessive force and faces up to four years behind bars if found guilty.

Both Ramos and Cicinelli are on unpaid leave and free on bond. An Orange County Superior Court judge has ordered them back to court on May 22 for a formal arraignment.

Prosecutors declined to file charges against four other Fullerton police officers involved in the altercation, citing a lack of evidence.

In May, Thomas' mother reached a $1 million settlement with the city in exchange for dropping her legal claims.

The settlement does not affect a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the city by Ron Thomas, the deceased man's father and a vocal critic of the city and police officials.

(Additional reporting by Troy Anderson and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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