The Vernon City Council on Tuesday approved a new policy for renting out city-owned dwellings, responding to criticism that the current system stifles open elections.
Most of Vernon's roughly 100 residents live in city-owned homes and apartments, which in the past have been controlled directly by the City Council. Critics argue that the arrangement has prevented legitimate elections from occurring in the industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles.
The new policy gives the housing commission, a seven-member board made up of local businessmen, residents and Vernon's mayor, the power to set rents for the homes and apartments based on an independent valuation. It was approved unanimously by the City Council after a brief discussion.
Although the action does not change the rents, the council called on the commission to determine more market-oriented rates.
The Times reported Tuesday that Vernon has spent more than $3.7 million to maintain and improve the properties since 2006, but collected only about $472,000 in rents. Individual rates range from $120 a month for one-bedroom apartments to $360 a month for three-bedroom homes. By contrast, homes in neighboring cities can rent for $1,000 a month or more.
Eric Gustafson, the housing commission's chairman, said the commission would explore the market value of the properties and consider other factors, such as the costs of managing the homes. He added that at this point he does not have a specific rate in mind.
"I truly believe we are on the right path here," Gustafson said after the vote. "This sends a message that the council is doing the right thing."
The rental policy also states that, besides emergency personnel, no prospective tenants shall be granted special leasing priority.
Of the 62 registered voters in Vernon, 25 have a direct connection to City Hall, according to a report released this summer by the city's ethics advisor, former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. The report recommended the city establish new regulations for the homes to avoid favoritism toward friends and relatives of city officials.
Van de Kamp has also suggested the city consider selling the properties. Others, including state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), have called for Vernon to add new residential units to increase the size of its voting population.
"The big question will be down the line, when it comes to additional housing, or the open question of whether to sell the properties," Van de Kamp said on Tuesday. "On an interim basis [the council members] are moving in the right direction."
City spokesman Fred MacFarlane said that another goal for the housing commission is to standardize the leases so that each agreement comes up for renewal every year. At this point, some of the leases are longer than others, he said.
MacFarlane also noted in an interview Tuesday that the $3.7 million in housing expenditures paid by the city since 2006 were necessary because of the poor condition of the rental properties. In all, the city owns about 25 units. "It's not like they created a bunch of luxury homes out there," he said.
The new rental policy marks the latest in a series of reforms Vernon has enacted since last December, when a bill was introduced in the state Assembly calling for the city to be dissolved. Other changes include salary cuts for top officials and the formation of several advisory committees. Vernon has placed 10 measures on the ballot in next month's election, including resolutions that would impose term limits for council members and require the city to create a competitive bidding process for contracts.
Van de Kamp praised the council members for the reforms but said they have not yet agreed to immediately cut their annual salaries to $25,000 as he recommended in July. The council members are paid about $56,000 a year for their part-time positions.