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Vernon a tightly controlled fortress

With only about 90 residents, most of whom live in city-owned housing and have ties to officials or work for the city, Vernon's municipal leaders are all but untouchable.

September 18, 2010|By Hector Becerra, Sam Allen and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times

Carl Algee's job as a $25-an-hour security guard at Vernon's municipal power plant came with one big perk — a city-owned apartment at well below market rent.

There was also one catch.

"When I got the apartment, they said I had to register to vote … and they said, 'You'll know who to vote for,'" Algee recalled. "It was a vague statement, but I knew what they meant — the incumbents."

Algee said he got his ballot by mail and decided to go to City Hall to fill it out and turn it in; as he stood at the counter, a city employee hovered nearby, watching him mark his choices.

"I pointed to one of their candidates and looked at her and she nodded, yes, that one," he said. "So I went to the next one and looked at her and she nodded again. That's how it worked."

Algee, a former Los Angeles police officer who was fired from his Vernon job in 2007, was a member of what some might consider an exclusive club: the Vernon voter.

Numbering only about 90, Vernon's residents are historically pliant, undemanding and loyal. The largely industrial city selects its own residents, who have rewarded council members by keeping them in office for decades.

The arrangement has ensured remarkable political stability in a city considered one of the region's economic engines, with 1,800 businesses and an annual municipal budget of nearly $300 million.

Four years ago, prosecutors brought corruption charges against the city administrator and the mayor, who had been in office more than half a century and was a scion of the family that founded Vernon. Last week, the state attorney general subpoenaed records from the city after reports in The Times of lavish salaries, benefits and expenses enjoyed by top Vernon officials.

But through it all, Vernon has largely been impervious to outside judgment or intervention, in part because of who constitutes its electorate.

It is a city, critics say, that tolerates no surprise voters — where night-shift security guards cannot sleep on cots or beds lest they gain grounds to claim residency, where any form of camping is strictly prohibited and where no new housing is allowed. One of the last privately owned homes in Vernon was bulldozed in the early 1980s to make way for a parking lot.

Now, City Hall owns virtually all of the housing and doles it out very selectively. Over the years, most of the residents were city employees who depended on Vernon for their livelihood: jobs and cheap housing. More recently, many of the employees have been replaced by friends and family members of department heads and council members.

Some employees of a Manhattan Beach carwash run by Councilman Richard Maisano receive heavily subsidized city housing. So does the nephew of City Administrator Mark Whitworth.

In neighboring cities, high salaries and allegations of corruption have sparked protests that in some cases have brought major changes. But state officials said they see little chance of protest inside Vernon.

And without a voter revolt, it's going to be difficult to bring much change to the city.

"A political solution on the ground involving voters, a civic movement, that isn't possible in Vernon," said state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate). "They're all beholden to the machine. It's like they said of Mexico — it's the perfect dictatorship because they have elections. Vernon is the perfect corporation because it pretends to be a city."

De La Torre and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said they have studied other ways to change the leadership in Vernon but found no easy options.

"It would be very hard to create something where there would be a legitimate vote of the people," Pérez said, "because the council for all intents and purposes controls who their electorate is."

Close to the vest

Most of the city's five council members live in tidy, wood-frame homes with green lawns tucked hard in a world of gray smokestacks, meat packers, heavy industry, power plants and transmission lines. As he pulled out of the parking lot of his city-owned apartment building on East 50th Street wearing a Boy Scout leader uniform, Councilman William Michael McCormick said he didn't have time to talk.

"Call City Hall. Call the city administrator," he said. "I have a meeting to go to."

Coming to the door of his home on Fruitland Avenue, Councilman William Davis politely fended off a reporter's questions while saying he had to go to a doctor's appointment.

"It's too bad what's going on in Bell and Maywood," Davis said, while declining to talk about Vernon. "You should talk to the city administrator. That's where you're supposed to go."

At the home of Mayor Hilario "Larry" Gonzales on Furlong Place, in the shadow of City Hall, a woman who answered the door said he was not available.

"Go to City Hall," she said. "You have to go there."

Up the block, Cesar Avila, 22, said his family found their city-owned home through Councilman Maisano. Avila said his father works with Maisano at a carwash in Manhattan Beach.

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