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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

Since then, Malburg has liked what he has seen. "I think the feeling is, he's doing a fine job for the city, or he wouldn't be there," the mayor said. "It's that simple."

Malkenhorst, a father of five, is a longtime Downey resident who graduated from Compton High School and Woodbury College before working for a number of private companies as a controller. He was with the finance department at the city of Manhattan Beach when Vernon hired him, instructing him to shore up the city's finances and come to grips with newly forming labor unions.

The directive to Malkenhorst was simple--"Don't give away the store"--and he followed it with a vengeance.

His role in the firing of city firefighters touched off years of upheaval, even bomb scares.

"Those were really fun times," Malkenhorst recalled, wistfully.

Although a judge upheld the dismissals, firefighters attempted to challenge the political Establishment. They brought in Claunch, a retiree, who took a room above a cafe and announced his candidacy for office. Almost immediately, he recalled, he was besieged by city inspectors trying to force him to move.

"They said (the room) wasn't designed for residential use," Claunch remembered. "They started putting pressure on the landlord, on the people who leased the cafe. One day seven inspectors showed up."

Claunch and the landlord circumvented the city codes by drafting an agreement that made him a night watchman. When election night came, according to Claunch, the city election officer--Malkenhorst--disqualified a number of ballots; Claunch lost the race to Malburg, the incumbent mayor, by a vote of 33 to 24.

"I had the votes," he said bitterly. "I still think I won that election."

Malkenhorst said he did not recall disqualifying ballots that year. The race, however, became the subject of a district attorney's investigation at Claunch's request. Claunch charged, among other things, that the mayor lived outside the city. Malburg owned--and still owns--a six-bedroom, six-bath home with a pool in Hancock Park, but claims as his legal residence a suite in a Vernon office tower.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Louis K. Ito, who handled the investigation, recalled obtaining testimony from a maid who said the mayor lived outside of Vernon. Meanwhile, Malkenhorst also faced accusations stemming from negotiations to rehire the fired firefighters.

"The president of the association calls me . . . says he wants to talk to me to see if there's any chance they can get their jobs back," Malkenhorst recalled. "I said, 'You can't have that (union) attorney involved any more.' He said, 'No problem, he's gone.' And they got me for soliciting a bribe because of that."

Ultimately a grand jury indicted both the mayor and Malkenhorst, but each was cleared in court.

Slashed Police Jobs

Malkenhorst next turned his attention to the Police Department. He eliminated many positions and turned others into civilian jobs. Morale plummeted. At the next city election, in 1980, retiring Police Chief Spencer E. Hogan--the resident of a city-owned home--surprised City Hall by proclaiming himself a candidate. The city immediately evicted him, saying city-owned homes are for active employees.

Another resident, Philip Reavis, then president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, also decided to run for office. Reavis, the owner of one of the few private homes in Vernon, allowed Hogan to move in, and together they ran to challenge a pair of incumbents.

This time, Malkenhorst disqualified six ballots, subtracting those votes from each of the two challengers. The lost votes made a difference as incumbents Hilario Gonzales, with 35 votes, and Keith K. Kaeser, with 32, won reelection. Hogan ended up with 30 votes, Reavis with 27.

"If you were going to write a Mel Brooks movie, this is the kind of thing you'd make up," said Reavis, who filed suit over the race but later abandoned it.

Malkenhorst recalled throwing out the ballots because the names on six voter-registration forms were found to be outsiders not residing in Vernon. He pinned the blame on the challengers for bringing them into town.

Under Malkenhorst, the city soon began exploring new ways to make money. One was to take advantage of its own electric-power grid, built by founder John Leonis in the 1930s. Rather than buy all of its power from the Southern California Edison Co., Malkenhorst began purchasing electricity more cheaply on the open market, importing it from Arizona, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

The practice is evidence of his business acumen, supporters said. It has enabled Vernon to boost budget reserves while providing power to industry at discount rates. However, Edison officials now blame Malkenhorst for destroying the once-friendly cooperation between the city and the company, and the two groups are now locked in a legal battle over Vernon's access to Edison's interstate transmission lines.

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