The families that run the city of Vernon (population: 90-something) were alarmed nearly four years ago when a handful of newcomers moved to town and registered to vote. It was part of a scheme, city leaders claimed, by the political boss of nearby South Gate to misuse the instruments of democracy to take over new territory.
And when it comes to misusing the instruments of democracy, those Vernonites know what they're talking about. They're experts. Mayor Leonis Malburg and his family pulled Vernon's strings from the family estate in Hancock Park for years, apparently unfazed by state laws that require elected officials to live in the cities they serve and voters to live in the cities where they vote. The Malburgs dealt with the voting nuisance in part by canceling 25 years' worth of elections, and when there finally was a vote, and it was challenged in court, City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst Jr. -- not to be confused with a previous Vernon official, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr. -- grabbed the ballot box and locked it away for the duration.
Early this year an appellate court rejected the city's attempt to cancel the voter registrations of the new residents. And on Friday, Malburg and his wife were convicted of voter fraud and conspiracy. Justice, and the real world, may finally have caught up with Vernon.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's Public Integrity Division deserves credit for policing the halls of power in some of Los Angeles County's smaller municipalities, which are ripe for exploitation by would-be political bosses. Cities exist to represent and serve the people who live there, vote and pay their taxes, not to become private treasuries for a few select families who live in luxury miles away.
It's hard to know what comes next for Vernon. Founded by Malburg's grandfather in 1905 as an "exclusively industrial" city, it's an odd little family fiefdom of factories and warehouses, set up less for people than for business. While it was making a mockery of democracy, it won praise for supposedly being the county's most business-friendly city. Its best-known feature is the mural of happy pigs, lounging in bucolic bliss, painted on the sides of the Farmer John processing plant where real pigs are being turned into Dodger Dogs. The convictions aren't likely to change what the city is.
But they do demonstrate that the law still counts. And that even here in the Wild West, justice sometimes prevails.