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Vernon's shot at reform

The city can't seem to shake its bad habits on its own. But with the help of voters and a state senator, it may be able to finally have a local democratic government.

November 20, 2011

The city of Vernon was barely out from under the threat of disincorporation when it went back to its old bad-government ways. The City Council voted in October to promote its interim city attorney, Michael Montgomery, to a permanent job without first placing the matter on the agenda or conducting an open search process.

After state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) took the council to task, longtime Mayor Hilario Gonzalez announced his resignation; he had been on the council since 1974. Montgomery also quit. The city is finally parting ways with Eric T. Fresch, its luxuriously paid former city administrator turned consultant, as well.

Change doesn't come quickly to Vernon, a city of 1,800 businesses and about 100 residents. The previous mayor and his wife were convicted of voter fraud in 2009 for trying to hide the fact that they weren't among those 100 residents; they lived in Hancock Park. City jobs have been handed down in families, and votes that might have gone against those families were canceled. Criminal convictions caused barely a burp in how the city was run. Most of the residents live in ultra-inexpensive city housing and are beholden to the city in one way or another. The businesses didn't care as long as their power was cheap and regulation minimal.

It took a bill that threatened the loss of Vernon's autonomy to get business leaders to sit up and pay attention. The legislation would have disbanded the city and made it an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County. De Leon, whose district includes Vernon, successfully fought off the legislation, saying he would push the city to clean up its act instead.

So far he has been true to his word. Earlier this month, city voters — 52 of them — voted for amendments to the city charter that include making it easier to fire administrators. On Tuesday, several more charter amendments go before voters. These include limiting pay raises, hiring someone to monitor reforms for four years, requiring council vacancies to be filled by election and, probably most important, maintaining an independent housing commission. Why is that last one key? The other steps have little meaning if Vernon fails to establish a democracy, and that can't happen as long as the city controls who gets to live within its borders. It remains to be seen, though, who will ultimately control the housing commission. If it is not set up by a person or agency outside the city, reform most likely will elude the city.

The council's actions show that the majority of members aren't eager to change on their own. With the reform measures, though, and if De Leon keeps a watchful eye, Vernon has a shot at becoming what it hasn't managed to be so far — a local democratic government.

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