Facing a threat to abolish its cityhood, Vernon – the smallest incorporated city in the state of California – has cranked up an all-out communications effort on TV and in newspapers. It’s even going Hollywood.
Vernon, Pop. 95, has hired almost as many lawyers as it has residents and its payroll boasts some of Sacramento’s top lobbyists and strategists. Their goal: Beat back a move by Assembly Speaker John Pérez to force the city’s disincorporation.
“We … do not thank you, nor are we enamored by your work to dissolve the economic engine of L.A. County,” Some two-dozen Vernon businesses wrote Pérez in a Feb. 23 letter.
Pérez says the 106-year-old town, a five-square-mile industrial patch in his 46th Assembly District, has been run for generations like a family fiefdom – a worthy comparison, given that the grandson of a founder served as mayor for 35 years until he stepped down in 2009, and another scion of a founder served as the top administrative official for decades.
Vernon’s well-publicized problems have included some of the highest salaries in the state for local officials, huge legal and travel costs, and voting-rights abuses. There have been felony indictments for a former city administrator alleging that he steered contracts to his wife’s company, and more indictments for another top administrator alleging a $60,000 embezzlement. The long-serving former mayor was convicted of 10 felony counts, including perjury and voter fraud.
For Pérez, Vernon’s systemic problems require drastic measures. The lobbying campaign intensified early last month, and since then the communications blitz has heated up. The rival parties are meeting, but thus far a compromise agreement has proven elusive.
“We’ve met with their representatives, but this is a big priority for the speaker, and we’ve made it very clear that our aim is to get rid of that corruption. This is the only effective vehicle to do that,” said Pérez spokesman John Vigna.
The wealthy, industrial town just south of Los Angeles also has called in more help. As in most deep-pockets fights in the Capitol, lobbying and communications become blurred, and the dispute over Vernon’s continued cityhood is a classic case.
The city’s message is that disincorporation would hurt the local economy, drive businesses out and force those that remain to pay more for energy, fire protection and regulatory services. At a time when unemployment exceeds 12 percent, it makes no sense to force incorporation and put jobs at risk, they argue.
Vernon’s advisers now include Christopher Lehane, dubbed the ‘master of disaster,’ a former damage-control strategist with the Clinton White House during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals. Lehane, hired by the city of Vernon, has been running TV spots throughout L.A. lauding Vernon. Two weeks ago, a full-page ad appeared in the L.A. Times touting Vernon’s attributes, showing a Palmdale firefighter declaring, “I work in Vernon.”
The video campaign includes a “Vernon Works” short appearing in theaters during premiere week of “Battle: Los Angeles,” a science fiction film depicting an alien attack on Los Angeles. “We’re in this battle for our workers and business owners. Much like in the plot of the fictional ‘Battle: LA’, we’re united in a fight to save our city and vanquish our attackers.”
The city also has hired two prominent figures to review its operations and recommend improvements: Former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, at $550 an hour, and Bob Stern, former general counsel of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, at $450 an hour.
Although tiny in population, Vernon is nonetheless an industrial welter weight. Its 1,800 businesses employ, directly or indirectly, some 55,000 workers. It has a top fire department – a Class I operation equaled by only two-dozen in the country. It has favorable utility rates, a pro-business development posture, meat packing plants, heavy industry and its commute work force is substantially unionized.
Vernon has at least four lobbying companies on retainer, including Kahl-Pownall, the state’s top-billing firm, and Nielsen Merksamer, a top political law firm, and Capitol Advocacy, another blue-chip lobbying firm. The city is retaining its regular lobbying firm, Joe Gonsalves & Son.
The city also has hired at least two other major law firms – Latham & Watkins and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. The former, with 2,000 attorneys, is one of the largest law firms in the world.
By Capitol Weekly’s estimate, the city is paying about $50,000 a month in lobbying fees alone, a figure that does not include an array of legal costs or its television or print advertising, which are likely to be far higher. A New York Times report put the TV buy alone at $65,000 per week, beginning last week. That Vernon has deep pockets is clear: An L.A. Times report last month said Vernon has spent $42 million on legal fees over the past five years.
The target of all the latest firepower is a single bill, a measure authored by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a former labor organizer. Thus far, his bill is the most intensely lobbied bill of the year, pitting Democrats against Democrats, labor against labor and the state against the locals.
His AB 46 would strip Vernon of its city status and put the town under the county’s jurisdiction, which is where it would stay unless the L.A. Board of Supervisors disagrees – which is unlikely. At least one supervisor, Gloria Molina, already backs a resolution to strip Vernon of its cityhood.
His bill – by law, it can’t expressly single out a city – obliquely refers to any incorporated community with a population of less than 150, and the only city that fits that profile is Vernon, a chartered city. If the city is disincorporated and then seeks to reincorporate, it would need at least 500 residents, under state law. Of 481 cities ranked according to population, Vernon is the smallest. The second smallest is Amador City, with 257.
The latest skirmish: This week, Vernon’s legal team said forcing the city’s disincorporation would prove unconstitutional. Meanwhile, 92 members of the 120-seat Legislature declared themselves coauthors of Pérez’s bill.
Unlike other scandal-tinged communities south of L.A., including Bell and Southgate, Vernon is prosperous. It has about two-dozen families actually living in the town and some 26 residences. It is at the core of L.A. industry, and disturbing its governance would needlessly harm the area’s economy, city backers say.
“The dissolution of Vernon puts thousands of jobs at risk as many employers have stated that if the city is dissolved, they will not be able to keep their doors open in Vernon or anywhere in L.A. County,” noted a Feb. 23 letter to Pérez from 25 businesses in Vernon, including meat packer Farmer John, which employs 1,800 workers, and CR Laurence, which has 750 local employees.
But in the view of the speaker, whoever runs Vernon, city or county, would have little impact on the economy or jobs. The real issue is the attempt by a city to operate with little oversight.
Ed’s Note: Corrects spelling in 7th graf of speaker’s aide John Vigna.