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Mayor resigns amid turmoil over reform in Vernon

Hilario 'Larry' Gonzales quits after criticism that the council acted improperly in promoting the interim city attorney without placing the matter on the meeting agenda.

November 05, 2011|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Mayor Hilario Larry Gonzales has served on the Vernon City Council for nearly 40 years.
Mayor Hilario Larry Gonzales has served on the Vernon City Council for nearly… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Vernon's top elected official abruptly resigned this week amid growing tensions over whether council members in the troubled city are serious about promised reforms.

Mayor Hilario "Larry" Gonzales, who has served on the City Council for nearly 40 years, submitted his resignation Monday after the council was criticized for promoting Vernon's interim city attorney, Michael Montgomery, without placing the action on a meeting agenda. Montgomery has resigned as well.

Their departures come at a key moment in Vernon as residents will vote this month on a series of reform initiatives that could significantly change the city's government and limit the authority of its council members.

The city, which has an estimated 1,800 businesses but only 112 residents, has been plagued by corruption scandals in recent years and was nearly disincorporated by the state Legislature this summer. A coalition of city leaders, business and labor groups helped defeat the legislation and has vowed to enact major reforms.

But over the last few weeks, concerns have emerged within Vernon that some of the city's elected officials may be resistant to the changes.

Tempers flared after the Oct. 18 council meeting, when Gonzales and two other council members voted to promote Montgomery.

The move produced a public rebuke from two of the city's most prominent allies: former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, who is working as Vernon's ethics advisor, and state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), who led a defense of the city in Sacramento. Vernon's Chamber of Commerce, which has become increasingly active in city politics, also assailed the move.

"It shows us that some of Vernon's council appear unable to learn from past mistakes," Jim Andreoli, a local businessman, said to the council at its meeting this week. "Waver from your commitment to reform, and you will lose our support. You will be alone."

Van de Kamp said he was pleased with the city's progress overall, but added that there was also "push back" from the council members against some of the proposed reforms, including a suggested pay cut to $25,000 a year.

The council members, who work part time, are paid annual salaries of about $56,000. They have also signed off on a series of controversial decisions in recent years, including annual salary payments of more than $500,000 for several city administrators.

"This has been a difficult process for them," Van de Kamp said. "They've been here a long time and the economics have been good for them.… Some of the changes are troubling."

Van de Kamp also said he had noticed tension between Montgomery and City Administrator Mark Whitworth over the direction of the city, but declined to discuss specific issues.

Montgomery, a former state chairman of the Republican Party, was hired by Vernon late last year.

In interviews this week Montgomery downplayed talk of a disagreement between himself and other Vernon administrators, saying he chose to resign because of negative media attention.

He also said that Gonzales' resignation was motivated by the fact that the mayor will probably earn more from his pension than he would under the proposed pay cut. Montgomery expects two other longtime council members, William Davis and William McCormick, to retire soon for the same reason.

"The city is going to be fine," Montgomery said in an interview. "It's got a strong political support now, and great union support and the manufacturers are behind it."

Gonzales could not be reached for comment. He and other Vernon council members have declined repeated interview requests from The Times over the last year.

Marisa Olguin, president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, said her organization had heard "rumors and feedback" that some of the council members were opposed to the initiatives. She and others in the Vernon business community have expressed fears that if the city rejects the reforms, Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) could reintroduce his disincorporation bill, AB 46, next year.

There are 71 registered voters in the 5.2-square-mile city, according to a city spokesman. Most live in homes and apartments owned by City Hall.

Among the initiatives on the ballot are term limits for the City Council, restrictions on lawmakers' compensation and requirements that they conduct a competitive bidding process for city service contracts. Two separate votes will be held, the first Nov. 8 and a second Nov. 22.

The council repealed its decision to promote Montgomery on Tuesday and instructed the city administrator to conduct a comprehensive search process. During the meeting, Davis, one of the council members who opposed Montgomery's promotion, delivered an emotional speech asking residents to support the reforms.

"This month of November is the most important month in the history of the city," Davis said. "I beg all of you residents… don't let John Pérez get back to the city of Vernon on his AB 46."

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