City officials in the town of Vernon are refusing to count the votes from their first municipal election in 25 years, prolonging a controversy that began in January when a trio of newcomers filed papers to challenge three longtime incumbents.

After the polls closed Tuesday, City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst Jr. said the ballot box would remain locked until litigation over the election is settled.

Vernon, south of downtown Los Angeles, has just 86 registered voters.

The lawsuit filed by the three challengers seeks to disqualify many of those voters on the grounds that most Vernon residents are city employees, relatives of city employees or elected officials. It says they are beholden to the incumbents because of that employment and because they live in highly subsidized city-owned housing.

Vernon officials tried to stymie the election before campaigning ever began.

Days after the three challengers set up residence in a commercial building, the structure was red-tagged as unsafe, their voter registrations were rescinded and the incumbents voted to cancel the election.

A Superior Court judge, however, revived their bid for office last month, ruling that city officials had acted illegally.

The challengers — Don Huff, David Johnson and Alejandro Lopez — are trying to unseat Mayor Leonis Malburg, Mayor Pro Tem Thomas A. Ybarra and Councilman W. Michael McCormick.