A cyclist rides in Vernon, which is one of the cities under review by a county… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
Eight years ago, a Los Angeles County government oversight panel examined the string of small working-class cities along the 710 Freeway and gave them a relatively clean bill of health.
Then a series of corruption scandals in southeast L.A. County roiled the region and made national headlines. Prosecutors filed public-corruption charges in Bell, Vernon, Commerce, Cudahy and Lynwood. Investigations are ongoing in Maywood and in at least one water district.
Now the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission is taking another look. And it's asking a question that has been much debated since the scandals broke: Is there a better way to govern the area?
Some urban planning experts have long suggested merging some of the small cities into a larger government entity that could benefit from economies of scale, a stronger tax base and better oversight. Most of the cities have large immigrant populations, including illegal immigrants, who can't vote.
A 2010 Times analysis of voting found that elections in these cities were more likely to have extremely lower turnout than those elsewhere in Los Angeles County. That same analysis found that southeast L.A. County had more than its share of voter fraud allegations. Of the roughly 160 complaints clearly identified as involving elections in Los Angeles County's 88 cities in the last decade, roughly one-third involved a dozen southeast cities.
LAFCO's new assessments could recommend boundary changes in the form of a consolidation, annexation or a disincorporation. However LAFCOs have historically been reluctant to impose any type of adjustments unless the agencies want to, and in the case of these so-called Gateway cities, they don't.
Among the cities under review are Bell, Compton, Cudahy, Commerce, Gardena, South El Monte, Maywood and Vernon.
Any effort to change the government structure in the southeast is expected to generate strong opposition.
"I'm not blind to the problems in this area, and I've been very critical, but I believe there's a lot of potential," said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens). "Talking about disincorporation is telling the Latino working-class community that they don't have the capacity, talent or leadership to lead their community."
Garcia was elected to the state Assembly because of the grass-roots work she did with a group of Bell activists who demanded reforms and a recall of the City Council.
Other local officials made it clear they didn't want to lose control of their cities. The attempt that came closest was a 2011 state Senate bill to disincorporate Vernon that the city spent thousands fighting. It ultimately won the battle after agreeing to a set of ongoing reforms.
LAFCOs were required to take up municipal service reviews under a 2000 state law charging them with analyzing agencies' efficiencies and identifying opportunities for greater coordination between providers. The reports can serve as precursor to a LAFCO suggestion of a change in boundaries. LAFCO officials have not said specifically why they selected these cities for review.
Rick Cole, the former Ventura city manager and urban affairs expert, is a vocal advocate for some type of government consolidation in southeast L.A. County but is skeptical it will happen through LAFCO.
"Consolidation of cities is most likely going to come from the bottom up in the communities that are so desperately underserved by governments whose borders don't allow them to be financially sustainable," Cole said. "But the fact that LAFCO is looking at this at least keeps the issue alive."
The 2005 LAFCO report on southeast cities highlighted fiscal concerns but found few concerns about how local governments were run. Commerce had contingency reserves that covered only 3% of its general-fund expenses. Cudahy, Maywood, Bell and Compton had low to modest general-fund revenues.
That report noted that Vernon had no contingency reserves and a negative general-fund balance that was supposed to be eliminated through a tax for street improvements.
The tax never made it on the ballot because city officials couldn't get the backing of Vernon businesses. Vernon is $8 million shy of closing its budget gap but is banking on three separate tax measures slated for the April ballot.
Besides those instances, none of the other cities in the 2013 review were labeled as having any significant issues back in 2005, especially when it came their governments.
"For the most part, the local agencies are accountable to their citizens, publicize governing body meetings and actively solicit community input in decision-making," the report said of local accountability and governance.
That conclusion puzzles residents in Bell, where prosecutors in 2010 charged eight former and current officials in a sweeping public corruption case.
"I don't know how they came up with that," said Ali Saleh, the mayor of Bell who was elected on the heels of the scandal.