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L.A. City Council backs plan to dissolve Vernon's cityhood

The small town's officials protest, saying they will fight to keep it —and its coveted tax base — intact.

March 02, 2011|By Sam Allen and Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles resident John Walsh points to California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez during public comments at City Hall.
Los Angeles resident John Walsh points to California Assembly Speaker… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

With the future of Vernon on the line, everyone seems to want a piece of the small but wealthy industrial city.

On Tuesday, the battle over the city's fate moved to Los Angeles City Hall, where the City Council voted unanimously to support a bill in the Legislature that would dissolve Vernon and make it an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County. The bill would leave Vernon's sizable and coveted tax base up for grabs, and several surrounding cities are expected to be interested in annexation.

But Vernon is not going down without a fight. City backers bused workers from Vernon to City Hall for a rally against disincorporation before the council meeting. Inside the chambers, the action grew heated when Vernon's city administrator shouted at an L.A. firefighters union official whom he said had disrespected his town.

During the protest, the bill's author, Assembly Speaker John Pérez, gathered heavyweights inside City Hall — including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and County Supervisor Gloria Molina — to showcase support for Vernon's dissolution. The group cited a history of public corruption charges as well as longstanding accusations that Vernon lacks a legitimate electorate because the leaders there are able to hand-pick residents.

Molina called Vernon a company town "masquerading as a city," adding: "They have a lot of money; they will hire very expensive lawyers to fight this all the way, if needed, to the Supreme Court. That is what they will do. They will resist any change whatsoever."

Pérez said the bill, AB 46, had already garnered support from 69 assemblymen and 23 state senators. It is expected to be considered by the Assembly's local government committee later this month and could come up for vote in September.

The Los Angeles City Council ultimately sided strongly with Pérez, despite vehement arguments from Vernon business owners and labor leaders that the bill would cause a loss in jobs.

The debate underscored the intense interest in the 5.2-square-mile industrial city, which has come under fire in the months since The Times revealed high salaries and other benefits paid to top officials. One administrator, Eric T. Fresch, made as much as $1.65 million in 2008. Fresch still works for the city as a legal consultant.

But Vernon is also an important commercial hub, supporters say, with about 1,800 businesses and some 50,000 workers. The city also operates an electric utility and has its own police and fire departments. It has projected $295 million in revenues for the current fiscal year.

"Many business owners have said 'if the city goes away, so do we,'" said Peter Corselli, who manages a cold storage business in Vernon.

If successful, Pérez's bill would create an opportunity for Los Angeles or other cities to annex Vernon and add its huge base of businesses. Maria Elena Durazo, head of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, submitted a letter Tuesday asking that language from the Los Angeles City Council resolution advocating annexation be removed.

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn removed any talk of annexation from the motion approved Tuesday, but she and other council members indicated they planned to discuss the issue later. Councilwoman Jan Perry said she was still interested in exploring annexation further.

Numerous cities throughout southeast Los Angeles County are buzzing about the future of Vernon, which has long been viewed as one of the wealthiest and most powerful municipalities in the area.

Two officials from Maywood, which is facing federal investigation, attended Tuesday's meeting and said they supported the disincorporation bill. Leaders in City of Commerce have also formally discussed the bill, and Pérez said he was aware of interest in Huntington Park and the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles.

But Pérez said his top priority at this point was eliminating what he described as an "unprecedented and unequaled level of corruption" in Vernon's municipal government.

Opponents of the bill, however, questioned Pérez's intentions. Some said they believed the bill was an attempt to seize Vernon's tax base.

"Speaker Pérez has a vendetta against the city of Vernon," said Stan Stosel, a coordinator with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 47. "This is a naked power grab."

No officials from Vernon spoke at the council meeting, but several local business owners said the city was serious about running its government in a more open way. Juliet Goff, who runs a manufacturing company in Vernon, said disincorporation would bring higher taxes and electricity rates that would make "small businesses like mine disappear."

She continued: "There are ways to fix [Vernon] without destroying it."

Tensions ran high throughout much of Tuesday's hearing. Council President Eric Garcetti repeatedly asked the crowd to refrain from jeering, and police officers had to stop an argument between a labor leader and another man.

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