"He buries people in donated food . . . he does a lot of nice things for people and organizations around here," says Dr. Richard Schoenbaum, a Culver City dentist who is a member of Citizens Allied for Reliable Electricity (CARE), a Culver City group that formed in opposition to Vera's utility takeover proposal.
Vera was able to draw on such goodwill in 1992 when he first won election to the council. This year, his council colleagues appointed him mayor, a post that rotates from council member to council member every year. Throughout, Vera has prided himself on getting things done.
Vera's harshest critics soften their tone when they speak of his success after the Northridge earthquake in squeezing $250,000 out of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to finish a street rebuilding project in downtown Culver City. The work, part of a $10 million downtown redevelopment project, had been under way before the quake, but Vera argued that it should be completed immediately to offset traffic problems caused by the temblor.
Says Vera proudly: "I got a quarter of a million dollars in two weeks."
He is also credited with lobbying the federal government for more than $800,000 to rebuild Culver City's 45-year-old public swimming pool, which sustained heavy damage in the quake.
To generate more revenue for the city, Vera is working with Culver National Bank to create a Culver City credit card that would direct up to 3% of each cardholder's interest payments to municipal coffers.
He also successfully sponsored a voluntary program under which Culver City receives price reductions from vendors whom it pays within 10 days. And he was the driving force behind a "buy local" policy considered partly responsible for the city's purchase of more than $900,000 in goods and services from local businesses last year, out of total expenditures of more than $12 million. In the first four months of the current fiscal year, the city has turned to local businesses for $576,000 worth of goods and services.
Vera has plenty of other plans in mind--even if it is unclear whether the city will get the funding needed to carry them out. Among the projects: a new courthouse in Culver City and a 200-acre municipal golf course.
By far his most ambitious idea is his proposal for a takeover of electric service from Edison, which has had a franchise in the city since 1925.
He has spent most of the past year trying to convince both the City Council and local voters that municipal electric service will save Culver City money--up to $10 million in the first year. He first floated the idea more than a year ago. Soon after, the City Council voted to hire a San Francisco consulting firm, R.W. Beck & Associates, to complete a $24,000 preliminary feasibility study.
The effort suffered a setback in July when the City Council voted against proceeding further. However, one council member who says he is open to the possibility of municipal electric service was absent from that meeting, and the issue may again come up for discussion in the coming weeks.
Vera, meanwhile, has continued to press the matter.
"I consider it at a standstill, but Albert's talking about it as if he will be able to do it," said Councilman Michael Balkman. "Some of us know when to stop if we lose on our ideas, but Albert doesn't."
In its analysis, R.W. Beck found that it would cost Culver City about $24 million to buy Edison's distribution system, although Edison estimates the value at $100 million. To cover all the costs of a takeover--including $2.5 million in legal, engineering and appraisal fees--Beck said the city would need to issue up to $84.4 million in bonds.
But the study also showed that a municipal electric company would generate more revenue for the city than the nearly $600,000 a year that the city collects from Edison in franchise fees and property taxes.
Edison has not taken Vera's takeover proposal lying down. The utility has issued several reports condemning R.W. Beck's analysis as factually incorrect and contends that a municipal utility would prove far more costly to Culver City than the current arrangement.
Vera's proposal will never become reality because it is too expensive and has generated little support in Culver City, Edison contends.
"The people in Culver City are against a government takeover by a 4-to-1 margin," says Fred Trueblood, regional manager for Southern California Edison, quoting the results of a company-funded survey. "Albert has been difficult to deal with, and what he is doing now is more about political agendas than community benefits."
In pushing for a city-run utility, however, Vera is not proposing the unprecedented. Twenty-seven municipal utilities provide electricity in California, and all charge rates that are lower than Edison's, according to the California Municipal Utilities Assn.