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Vernon Shoo-Ins Shoo Outsiders

Officials in the tiny city, which hasn't had a contested election since 1980, evict three new candidates suspected of plotting a takeover.

February 12, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

In most cities, elections happen at least every four years. In Vernon, officeholders haven't faced opposition in a generation.

Twenty-five years after its elected officials last had a contested ballot, eight strangers took up residence in the tiny city four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Last month, after just a few days in town, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council in the April 11 election.

Within days, city utility trucks had turned off their power. The building they shared was slapped with red tags by inspectors who said the property was "unsafe and dangerous" as a residence. Strobe lights flashed through their windows. They and some of their relatives were placed under surveillance. Shortly, city police and other officials drilled holes in the locks and evicted the would-be office-seekers.

Having deprived the interlopers of city residence, Vernon officials on Jan. 27 disqualified them from the ballot. In a letter to one of the men, the city clerk accused the three of being part of a plot orchestrated by one of the county's most notorious political figures, Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of South Gate nearly bankrupted that city.

The letter also said the county counsel had determined that Vernon officials had legal power to decide who was "a valid elector and legally registered to vote" in the city.

On Thursday, after inquiries by The Times, county officials denied that they had told Vernon officials they could take such an action and released to The Times a Feb. 1 letter to Vernon officials from County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. The letter declared that the city's effort to disenfranchise the eight residents was "without effect."

But the county's intervention may have come too late.

At a Vernon City Council meeting Feb. 1, three elderly incumbent council members took turns walking through a door behind their seats. With halting steps, they recused themselves as the council voted to reappoint each of them.

Then the city fathers did the one thing that they almost always do every four years: They voted to cancel the election.

Afterward, the council passed a resolution honoring Mayor Leonis C. Malburg, 76, grandson of one of the city's founders, for his longevity in office. Letters of congratulations from members of Congress and other California leaders were presented and read to applause.

"I got my 50 years now, and I survived, health-wise and otherwise," Malburg said. "And I beat my dear grandfather, John Leonis, who had 45 years in the city ... by five years."

'Exclusively Industrial'

Vernon is unique.

The city's motto is "exclusively industrial," and that is almost literally true.

The city is five square miles of low-slung industrial and commercial buildings, laced with railroad tracks. Green space is nearly nonexistent. Among the few splashes of color is the landmark mural of farm animals on the side of the Farmer John pork processing plant.

About 44,000 people work in the city. But only 93 live there, according to the latest census estimate. Nearly all live in heavily subsidized city-owned housing.

The lack of residents means the city doesn't have to offer as many services as more populous cities. But it has considerable revenue. The city has its own police, fire and health departments and municipal utilities that generate tens of millions of dollars selling electricity and gas to local industries. The money has helped provide lucrative careers for a small group of city officials, most notably former City Administrator Bruce V. Malkenhorst Sr., whose son, Bruce Malkenhorst Jr., is the acting city clerk.

The senior Malkenhorst, who collected nearly $600,000 in salary, bonuses and payments for unused vacation before retiring last year, has been a focus of an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's Public Integrity Division into misappropriation of public funds, according to court records.

There are fewer than 60 registered voters in Vernon, and almost all are either city employees or related to a city official. All five council members have served at least 30 years in office.

"It's kind of a fiefdom," said Philip Reavis, 65, a former Vernon Chamber of Commerce president who ran for office in the city's last contested election -- in 1980. "This place is a little anomaly that exists, kind of by accident. In the whole state of California, there's nothing like it."

In the 1980 election, as in this year's, Vernon officials sought to disqualify a candidate by evicting him.

By strictly limiting who can live in the city, Vernon officials handpick their constituents, said Roy Ulrich, a lawyer and former Vernon property owner who has clashed with city officials. "They only allow people who are city employees. Anything that smells like residential property, they disallow."

Silent Majority

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