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Vernon mounts campaign to squelch legislation that would remove its cityhood

The city has hired lawyers and lobbyists, rallied support from local businesses, and touted its importance to the regional economy. A key legal issue will be its status as a charter city, experts say.

December 30, 2010|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Tracks course through Vernon. Officials and business leaders say that disincorporating the city is illegal and would eliminate numerous jobs.
Tracks course through Vernon. Officials and business leaders say that… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The city of Vernon and some of its businesses are mounting a concerted and potentially expensive campaign against a bill in the state Legislature that would disincorporate the industrial city and put it under the purview of Los Angeles County.

The scandal-plagued city has hired a Sacramento lobbyist, rallied support from its business community and issued statements touting the city's economic value to the region in an effort to defeat the bill introduced earlier this month by state Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles).

Sources in the Vernon camp said the city will argue that the state has no legal authority to disincorporate Vernon because it is a charter city. Charter cities have greater control over their affairs than general law cities, in which many of the laws are handed down from the state. Vernon is one of about 120 California cities in which voters have adopted a specific charter that outlines their governmental operations. The remaining 358 are general law cities.

Some experts said valid legal questions exist about whether the state can disband a charter city. The state Constitution affords special home-rule powers to charter cities, which Vernon could invoke in its defense, said Michael Jenkins, a local government attorney and an adjunct professor at the USC School of Law.

Jenkins predicted a court battle if Pérez's bill passes.

"The stakes are pretty big for Vernon," he said. "There's a lot of money involved."

Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities, agreed that Vernon's charter city standing will be a key issue.

"That's going to be the trickiest part of this bill," Whitnell said. "I think that's what it comes down to."

Vernon officials contend the bill is unconstitutional and call it a threat to jobs.

"The City of Vernon … objects to the proposed legislation that, in addition to violating the Constitution and the law, would likely result in the killing of thousands of jobs," City Administrator Mark Whitworth said in a written statement. Whitworth has refused interview requests.

The effort to dissolve Vernon follows revelations in The Times of high salaries paid to city attorneys and administrators and allegations that a small cadre of leaders runs the city like a fiefdom. In October, Vernon's former city administrator was indicted on public corruption charges — less than four years after another Vernon administrator and the city's longtime mayor were criminally charged. Vernon has about 95 residents, many of them either city employees or friends or relatives of city officials.

Pérez's bill would mandate that all cities with fewer than 150 residents be disincorporated unless their county board of supervisors supports them. Vernon is the only city in the state that falls below that threshold; the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has already passed a motion in support of Perez's bill.

Pérez, whose district includes Vernon, said last week that he was not surprised by the city's response.

"I expect nothing less from them; they'll make any argument that serves their purpose," he said. "They're going to try to scare people. They're going to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks."

If the bill were to become law, Vernon would be disincorporated through a process overseen by the Los Angeles County Local Area Formation Commission, Perez said. Only two cities have been dissolved through state legislation in the last century — Felton in 1917 and Hornitos in 1973 — and neither was a charter city.

"It's fair to say this raises an interesting set of legal issues," Jenkins said.

Vernon has an annual budget of about $300 million — much of its revenue comes from a city-owned power plant — and the city has shown a willingness to spend huge sums on legal billings and lobbying fees.

The city has assembled a team of attorneys and lobbyists from Latham & Watkins, a Los Angeles law firm, and Nielsen Merksamer, a Sacramento lobbying firm, to battle Perez's bill.

Vernon has also coordinated its effort with local business owners. Marisa Olguin, president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, said her organization, after discussions with city officials, is opposing the bill, AB 46.

"Not only do we believe AB 46 is unconstitutional against chartered cities, we see AB 46 as a perilous job-killer," she said.

Pérez has maintained that the billdoes not target business owners but seeks to eliminate corruption in Vernon. He has cited "a complete lack of transparency and accountability" in the city and argued that it lacks a legitimate electorate.

Both he and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R- Santa Clarita), the bill's coauthor, said the bill, introduced Dec. 6, was being supported by state legislators from the Los Angeles area.

"Our goal right now is to stop the good-ole-boys network in Vernon," Smyth said.

Smyth said he and Pérez will focus on ensuring that the bill can withstand a potential court challenge.

Pérez said that the bill would be considered by the Assembly's Local Government Committee in March or April, and that he hopes to make it a "one-year bill," meaning that it would come up for a final vote in September.

sam.allen@latimes.com

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