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Top-Paid City Official in State : Vernon Administrator--a Study in Power, Control

May 20, 1989|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

Bruce V. Malkenhorst ends his daily drive to work in Vernon, an industrial hamlet at the southeast edge of Los Angeles. The surroundings are bleak--manufacturing plants and slaughterhouses, harsh odors, trucks, rumbling trains. It is a city of just five square miles and 90 full-time residents.

Vernon may be an ugly town, a gritty town, but it is Malkenhorst's town, and he loves it--for good reason. In 14 years as city administrator, he has become the highest-paid city official in California. His $162,804 yearly salary has vaulted him past the city of Los Angeles' general manager of airports, who earns $153,000, and has lofted Malkenhorst far beyond such lesser government wage-earners as Mayor Tom Bradley, $97,654, and Gov. George Deukmejian, $85,000.

"I always thought if I made this much money I'd be rich," Malkenhorst said, punctuating his quip with a hearty laugh.

There are perks as well: The dapper, 54-year-old Malkenhorst tools past the dusty lots and chain-link fences of Vernon in a city-leased 1989 Cadillac, gold rings flashing on each hand, a gold band dangling from his wrist. He travels to conferences on city government in Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, and his expense accounts and travel budgets alone total $48,000. Like all Vernon employees, Malkenhorst puts in a four-day week; he devotes his Fridays to golf.

To hear Malkenhorst tell it, he is hardly overpaid. Rather, he considers himself a bureaucratic bargain. He is not only the city administrator; he is also the city clerk, finance director, personnel director and treasurer. He runs the city-owned Vernon Light and Power Co. and is secretary of the newly formed Vernon Redevelopment Agency.

"I think I make a lot of money here, but if I go back into private industry (I'd make) $300,000? $400,000?" Malkenhorst said with the gruff, breezy self-assurance that his critics call arrogance.

The salary, benefits and job titles form only a skeletal outline of Malkenhorst's dominance over Vernon. A shrewd and aggressive administrator, he has come to control this blue-collar town as though it were a Monopoly board--and he was the only player. His power is unquestioned; even the City Council, a part-time panel that shows little evidence of dynamic leadership, seems to follow his directives out of both respect and trepidation.

For instance, a city councilman--ostensibly one of Malkenhorst's employers--said when asked about the city administrator's salary: "For what he's handling . . . I agree with what he's making." Then the same councilman, pausing uncertainly, asked not to be quoted by name.

One-Man Town

Malkenhorst encourages the impression that he alone runs the town, overshadowing the actions of the council.

"He doesn't try to win popularity contests," said acting Police Chief Louis Rosenkrantz. "He looks an organization over and, when he recognizes there's too much fat on the top end, he chops it out, chops it out real clean--almost to the bone. He's very strong, very much in control.

"He's also very capable. He just doesn't give money away."

Malkenhorst's hard-nosed cost-cutting and business moves have streamlined the 260-member city payroll, increased revenues and tripled Vernon's huge budget reserves, now $95 million.

At the same time, he has stirred enmity and alienation with almost reckless indifference. While authorizing his own hefty raises, he has slashed the size of Vernon's Police and Fire departments in half. He takes pride in his reputation as a tight-fisted fiscal manager and almost intractable negotiator.

Malkenhorst's reign has not been without challenge. He survived a 1978 strike in which more than 90 firefighters were fired, a grand jury indictment stemming from alleged election improprieties and an FBI investigation of his administration--all challenges that have left him unscathed.

More recently, he has drawn the wrath of environmentalists for supporting a planned $29-million toxic waste incinerator in Vernon--a project that would substantially boost city revenues. He also angered much of Vernon's business community by proposing tough new restrictions on trucking and warehousing.

"He is ruthless . . . a dictator," said one longtime businessman, who asked not to be identified. "He is a powerful man . . . and he revels in that power. He has hurt a lot of people over the years."

Malkenhorst denies that firings or threats are a regular part of his management repertoire, saying he does not know why people seem to fear him. "We've negotiated good (labor) agreements with our people," he said. "We put them on a four-day work week because we had trouble keeping people. Most of the people who work for the city enjoy it."

Demonstration of Power

But in another breath, he delights in recalling an incident from years ago, when he was new to the job and firefighters were preparing for their walkout. One firefighter in particular was showing up at public meetings and lashing out at members of the City Council.

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