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Bill targets Vernon's cityhood

Assembly speaker wants to dissolve the small municipality after a series of civic scandals.

December 05, 2010|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

The effort to disband the city of Vernon will take a major step forward this week when State Assembly speaker John Pérez introduces a bill that would effectively require the industrial town to become an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County.

The bill, to be introduced Monday, stems from a series of corruption scandals in the city in recent years, including the indictment of Vernon's former city administrator in October. Critics have said the town of about 95 residents has been controlled for decades by a small cadre of families and their associates.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and other local officials have talked about the need for radical change in Vernon, but this is the first time the Legislature will consider aggressive action against the city.

"The issue here is about the complete lack of transparency and accountability in Vernon," Pérez said. "We cannot tolerate a situation where a handful of individuals are able to use an entire city as their own personal fiefdom."

Pérez's bill would mandate that any city with fewer than 150 residents disincorporate. Vernon is the only city in California with fewer than 150 residents, according to the state Department of Finance. If the bill is approved, Vernon's city government would be dissolved and its assets would be transferred to the county.

Records from the League of California Cities show that two California cities have been disincorporated by statute in the last century, and their residents did not actively oppose dissolution.

"There is no precedent for the state of California abolishing a city" against the will of its residents, said Rick Cole, a municipal government expert and city manager in Ventura.

Vernon officials are questioning whether the Legislature has the legal authority to act and arguing that Pérez and others are unfairly singling out their city.

Vernon City Administrator Mark Whitworth issued a written statement Friday saying disincorporation would "cost thousands of people their jobs and the state hundreds of millions in tax revenues."

"We believe any such action proposed by Mr. Pérez violates the state Constitution and the rights granted charter cities," Whitworth wrote. "The city of Vernon intends to defend the rights of its residents, the 1,800 businesses and tens of thousands of people who earn a living in Vernon."

California government code outlines a process for disincorporation, but it typically requires the vote of residents. Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, argued that his bill was necessary because of the lack of an independent electorate in Vernon.

All of Vernon's voters live in city-owned housing for which they pay below-market rent. Many of the residents are city workers and family members of top officials, according to records reviewed by The Times. The city sought to evict three men who moved there in 2006 and mounted a bid for election to the City Council.

Pérez and his staff said the bill complies with the state constitution because it is not aimed specifically at Vernon. They described it as a uniform measure that would establish a population threshold for all cities in California.

Assemblyman Chris Norby (R- Fullerton) said he anticipated bipartisan support for the proposal because of the sense in Sacramento that Vernon has "never acted as cities were intended to."

"I can't imagine who would be a supporter of a city like Vernon," Norby said. "This city was ill-conceived from the beginning."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina announced support for the bill through a statement from her policy director.

Vernon has for decades been dogged by claims that it is run more like a corporation than a municipality. This year brought renewed scrutiny from local lawmakers after a series of Times reports on compensation and other benefits received by top Vernon officials and about a salary scandal in neighboring Bell.

Several Vernon officials made between $500,000 and $1 million a year since 2005, with former city attorney and city administrator Eric T. Fresch making as much as $1.65 million in 2008. The officials traveled first-class on trips to New York and Europe and stayed at luxury hotels.

Three years ago, Vernon's longtime mayor was charged with voter fraud and the city administrator was charged with public corruption. Prosecutors said then-mayor Leonis Malburg lived in a mansion in Hancock Park and lied for years about living in Vernon. He was convicted last year. Bruce Malkenhorst, the former city administrator, awaits trial on charges that he misappropriated about $60,000.

The city was founded in 1905, and its leaders, including Malburg's grandfather, faced charges of voter fraud in the 1940s.

"Without an independent citizenry, the only vehicle to appropriately evaluate this city is the Legislature," Pérez said. "My sense is that it's in the public's interest to disincorporate, and this creates a public process in which the debate can be held."

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