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Relatives of current and former Vernon officials live in city-owned housing and pay very low rents

According to documents reviewed by The Times, the family members pay between $200 and $400 a month for their homes and apartments, well below general market rates for housing in the region.

November 12, 2010|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

At least a dozen relatives of current and former top Vernon officials live in housing owned by the city, including four family members of the current city administrator, documents reviewed by The Times show.

The family members pay between $200 and $400 a month for their homes and apartments, according to the records, well below general market rates for housing in the region.

Together, they represent a significant portion of Vernon's total population of about 90.

The city's disclosure of occupancy records comes as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors next week will consider backing legislation to strictly limit who can live in the tiny industrial city, which has been plagued by corruption scandals in recent years.

Critics have long argued that a small cadre of families and their associates have held power in Vernon for decades by controlling the voting population. All of Vernon's residents live in city-owned homes and apartments, and administrators oversee the rental process. One former resident, a contract-security guard, told The Times in September that his low-rent apartment came with the requirement that he vote for incumbents in the 2006 City Council election.

The proposed legislation the supervisors will consider stipulates that only 10% of city-owned homes can be occupied by city employees or persons whose affiliation with the city could constitute a conflict of interest. The city of Vernon owns 23 homes and an apartment complex, according to records.

City Administrator Mark Whitworth has four nephews living in Vernon: three in a city-owned house and one in a single-bedroom apartment. In September, he told Times reporters that he had only one relative living in Vernon.

But records show that Whitworth personally requested housing for five men in September 2008, when he was the city's fire chief.

"I have four young men and one middle aged in need of an apartment," he wrote in an e-mail addressed to then-City Administrator Eric T. Fresch. "A two-bedroom unit would suffice."

He issued a statement this week in response to an inquiry from The Times, saying four family members live in city housing.

Fresch — a former city administrator and city attorney who now works as a legal consultant — rented a house from 2007 to 2009 and listed his sister-in-law and her children as occupants. The city paid Fresch $1.65 million in 2008 but charged him only $236 per month for the three-bedroom home.

Occupancy records also show that Vernon rents homes to family members of Mayor Hilario Gonzales and Councilman Richard Maisano. Maisano declined to be interviewed for this story.

In addition to the homes occupied by those relatives of city officials, Vernon also owns a home in the nearby city of Huntington Park that was rented to Doug McBride, the brother-in-law of former City Administrator Donal O'Callaghan, according to records from August of this year. O'Callaghan was indicted on conflict-of-interest charges last month and has resigned from his city position, his attorney said.

McBride is the only relative listed at a Huntington Park address, and it is unclear if he still lives there. Vernon officials refused to discuss city housing this week.

Traditionally, Vernon has rented out housing to city employees. But in recent years, some residents have noticed that more people connected to city officials have moved in. Vernon has also tried to keep unwanted residents out of the city. In 2006, city officials fought to evict three men who moved into a warehouse and then launched a campaign for City Council. That year, the city had its first contested council election in decades. The incumbents won in a landslide.

The city has not had a close council race since. Three of the five current councilmen have been in office since 1981 or before.

Some experts said that having the city serve as landlord to residents represents an inherent conflict.

"Every check and balance inherent in local law in California is based upon responsiveness to an electorate," said Rick Cole, Ventura's city manager and an expert in municipal government. "In this case, there is no authentic electorate."

The supervisors could seek to change that. The proposed constitutional resolution —drafted by Supervisor Gloria Molina — would authorize a county commission to competitively bid housing units in cities like Vernon and provide a mechanism to relocate displaced families or individuals.

The resolution would ultimately need the approval of both the state Assembly and Senate and California voters.

Vernon officials have not responded to Molina's motion. In previous statements they have defended the city, citing its regional economic importance and emphasizing the services it provides to local businesses.

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