Workers bused from Vernon rally in opposition before the L.A. City Council… (Los Angeles Times )
Last year, the business leaders of Vernon rose up to protest state legislation that would have disbanded the scandal-plagued city. They showed little interest in the fact that blatantly illegal and irresponsible acts had been committed, or that municipal elections were a perpetual joke because the city controlled which 100 or so people got to live within its borders. Questioned about the numerous criminal charges against former city administrators, the lack of financial controls and the luxury perks that officials enjoyed, the response of business leaders varied little: Sure, there's corruption, but the city is in the black, our utility rates are low and no one bothers us with burdensome rules.
The bill to disincorporate the city certainly had more than its share of problems. But the business community opposed it for all the wrong reasons. In the end, it died after one legislator withdrew his support and worked out a separate deal under which Vernon pledged to lower the exorbitant pay of city officials and to spend $60 million on projects for neighboring cities that claimed they had been adversely affected by Vernon's heavy concentration of industry.
As expected, some things have changed in Vernon, but not nearly enough. There were allegations of wrongdoing surrounding the June elections. A state report found that reforms have been slow and incomplete and that the new city administrator — Vernon's former fire chief, who has little experience running a city — is ineffective. The long history of questionable investments and ridiculously high compensation for city officials and consultants have led the city to the brink of ruin. A former administrator, who might have been able to answer financial questions for state auditors, was found dead in a Bay Area park last month.
Now that bad governance has led to financial disarray, with a probability of higher taxes and utility prices, Vernon's business leaders are finally in revolt against their own badly managed city. Maybe disincorporation wasn't such a bad idea, some of them muse, although the city's budget woes mean that other municipalities are now less interested in taking it over. The business community's willingness — or unwillingness — to demand good government was always of particular importance because Vernon's 1,800 companies far outnumber its residents. The city would have listened to these leaders because it depends on their presence for its very existence. But the business owners were interested in reform only after their way of doing business was threatened by the disincorporation bill.
Just a year ago, Vernon's story was one of venal politics and greedy city officials. Now it reads more like a lesson in ethical decision-making. There is an inherent value to honest, well-run government.