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COVER STORY : Shock Value : Politics: Defiant Culver City Mayor Albert Vera charges forward with his plan to bring low-cost electricity to residents. But his proposal also has generated heat from officials at Southern California Edison.

November 06, 1994|MARY MOORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As he walks between the rows of olive trees, Albert Vera reaches up and plucks off one of the green, acorn-sized fruits, then places it carefully atop a bucket heaping with olives picked by a field hand.

"Let's pick those trees over there next," he says to the foreman, motioning to a section of trees in the distance.

In the tiny town of Lindsay, about 45 minutes north of Bakersfield, Vera is owner and lord of an olive fiefdom consisting of 26 ranches, thousands of acres, a country bungalow, several dogs, even some rare white peacocks.

He is every bit the no-nonsense boss. When he bought his first olive ranch, Vera knew nothing about growing olives--only that he wanted to be in the business. Now he is the area's largest landowner and one of its biggest olive producers, locals say. Says Vera: "If you tell me I can't do something, by God I'll learn how to do it."

It's this defiant, straight-ahead style that, as mayor of Culver City, Vera has displayed in his drive to have the city take over local electric service from Southern California Edison.

Vera has argued for over a year that Culver City should create a city-run utility to lower electric rates for its residents. Says Vera: "Edison has made millions off rate payers. I want the profits to remain in the cities." Recently, he has been urging eight area cities--Culver City included--to collectively demand rate reductions from Edison and consider creating a joint agency to purchase electricity.

But Vera's vision of a city-owned utility has angered Edison, and the giant power provider has its share of allies in Culver City. Critics call the mayor's proposal half-baked. Vera's single-minded approach may work wonders in the olive groves, they say, but it could cause major problems in an area as complicated as municipal electric service.

"He's got a lot of ideas. He seems to come up with a new one every week, but he doesn't think about them enough before he presents them," says Ed Little, a former City Council member who is still active in Culver City politics. "People are afraid that the city can't run its own utility efficiently, yet Albert is like a bulldog when he gets an idea in his head."

Vera, who was first elected to the Culver City City Council in 1992, acknowledges that he often feels frustrated with the inertia of politics.

"By yourself, you can do things and get them done, but in politics you have to discuss everything and by the time you're done, you get disgusted with it," says Vera, who, in addition to olive growing, has owned and operated Sorrento's Deli in Culver City since 1963. "I'm used in life to doing things, accomplishing things."

Waiting for things to happen never has been Vera's style. If it were, his rags-to-riches story might have read quite differently.

In 1950, at age 15, he arrived in New York from a small town near Naples, Italy. Vera came as an American citizen--his mother was born in the United States, but moved to Italy before he was born. During his first year in this country, he moved with an aunt to Culver City, where he has lived ever since.

He spoke no English, had no money, and wanted desperately to go home, he says. "Every time I opened my mouth, people laughed at me," he recalls.

It did not take him long to learn English, although he retains a heavy Italian accent. Nor did it take him long to make his way in business. In 1962, he bought a white van and started a refrigerated deli on wheels. Vera drove a two-week circuit from Culver City down to San Diego and then up to San Jose, making home deliveries of fresh mozzarella and other deli items to customers.

Soon after starting his portable deli, he married his wife, Ursula, a native of Germany, and together they opened Sorrento's Deli. The shop still stands in the same Sepulveda Boulevard location, though it is twice as large as the original store.

It was while he was driving through the San Joaquin Valley that Vera decided to get into the olive business. He bought his first ranch in the early 1960s. Clueless about farming, Vera called professors of agriculture at several California universities for information.

Now he produces between 1,200 and 1,500 tons of olives annually, bottling some whole and crushing some for olive oil. He sells both products under a private label, Vera Ranches, at his own store and through distributors. He also sells Italian coffee and wine under his own label.

At least twice a week, Vera makes the 3 1/2-hour trip to Lindsay, most of the driving time spent on a cellular phone conducting his business as mayor--talking to reporters, getting updates on projects, responding to complaints from city residents. On one recent afternoon, he was behind the counter at Sorrento's, serving up sandwiches and conversation. There, too, he talks city politics with the locals--and contributes to numerous causes.

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