Vernon battles in Capitol to keep cityhood

The tiny, scandal-plagued, industrial city of Vernon five miles south of downtown Los Angeles has launched a full-blown lobbying effort for survival, hoping to block a move by  

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to abolish the city’s official status and fold it into the county’s turf.

Power, money and politics are mixing here.

“This is a huge priority for the speaker. There is an intense level of community support for this effort. Whatever lobbyists may come, it’s not going to matter,” said Pérez  aide John Vigna.

The 106-year-old city, run for generations by a powerful inner circle, is squaring off against the state, which Vernon contends has no legal justification to force disincorporation. The city has been embroiled in corruption and voting-rights scandals and the resignation of top city officials.

Attempts to resolve the ills thus far have failed and it’s time for the state to step in, the speaker believes. The city is in his district.

“The issue is about honesty and transparency in government, none of which exists in Vernon. It is an intolerable situation and that’s why we are moving this bill,” Vigna said. “Vernon says it’s a poor little city and why is everyone picking on us, and then they go out hiring some of the most expensive lobbyists in Sacramento. ”

 Vernon, which has about 100 residents, has hired blue-chip lobbyists and strategists in Sacramento to present its case to the Legislature, including Kahl-Pownall and the Nielsen Merksamer law firm.

Vernon also hired former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, a former district attorney in Los Angeles and a candidate for governor 20 years ago, as an ethics advisor to examine Vernon’s governance, said Vernon spokesman Fred MacFarlane.

But Vernon’s selection of one lobbyist took the Capitol – and the speaker himself – by surprise: Barry Broad, an influential labor lobbyist in Sacramento who represents numerous union groups, including the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Longshore and Warehouse Union. He also has corporate clients, such as Comcast and Genentech. Broad was hired at $12,500 a month. Broad, well known in the Capitol, also is on the short list as Gov. Brown’s choice for labor secretary.

Speaker Pérez,  a friend of Broad and a cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has deep labor roots in L.A. and once served as political director for the UFCW Local 324.  Pérez  was outraged that Broad was representing the opposition to his disincorporation bill, AB 46, and the speaker said as much in at least one private meeting between the two.  Pérez  also noted that Vernon is in his 46th Assembly District.

“We talk all the time, and it’s not as though friends can’t disagree,” Broad said. “The question is, how do you disagree without being disagreeable? Nothing like this has ever been done before —  the Legislature removing the charter from a charter city.”

 Pérez  also met with Vernon officials last week. Both sides said they continue to communicate with each other, but they said the bill remains unchanged and has not yet been scheduled for its first policy hearing before the Assembly Local Government Committee.

Pérez,  who has bipartisan support for the measure, believes disincorporation is the only way to resolve the long-time corruption that has existed in the town. His bill would force any city government with less than 150 residents – the only one that fits into this category is Vernon – to dissolve and relinquish its assets to the county. Perez sees the issue as a final way of resolving systemic fraud and corruption, but Vernon and its allies say the issue is far more complex.

Financially, much is at stake.

The city hosts 55,000 workers in an array of industry-linked jobs. There are seven Teamsters’ locals, and unions representing machinists, food and commercial workers and others that represent perhaps a third of the local workforce. The town has a major Fire Department – one of only 30 similar departments in the nation that can handle a similar level of hazardous materials assignments. Vernon also has a major hog-slaughtering industry, with thousands of live hogs slaughtered daily.

The city has 44 miles of major natural gas lines feeding its industrial customers and delivers electricity through its 70-year-old municipal utility. It also provides fiber optic cable – 35 miles of cable in a five-square-mile area, according to the city. The transfer of the utility assets alone to the county could prove complicated.

If the city is dissolved, how would it affect the workers? Vernon now contends its utility rates are 20 percent to 30 percent lower than the rest of the county. If disincorporation is approved, would businesses close or leave if the rates rise under county supervision?

“Their sales are down and every penny counts,” Broad said.

But Pérez says the labor-jobs issue is a public relations gimmick to develop public support to block the bill. In reality, the change to county jurisdiction would have little or no impact on the community’s economic vitality.

“The jobs issue is a red herring, and about the only effect on businesses will be when they file for their business licenses. The fees, however, will be comparable,” Vigna said. “But they (opponents) are pulling out all the stops and that’s what we expected them to do.”

But reforms targeting past abuses already have been made and more are on the way, said McFarlane, who pointed to the hiring of Van de Kamp and other potential changes.

“There are reforms that have been enacted, and there are reforms that are envisioned,” he said, but those would be blocked by disincorporation. “The city is opposed to that. It is bad public policy and of questionable legality.”

Cities have disincorporated in California before.

Seventeen cities have disincorporated in the state’s history, including Stanton, Pismo Beach and Long Beach, each of which later reincorporated, according to a 2009 analysis in the Public Law Journal. Since 1963, when the Local Area Formation Commissions were created, two cities have disincorporated – Cabazon in 1972 and Hornitos in 1973.

But no community has been forced to dissolve by the state and doing it in Vernon’s case would be a mistake, MacFarlane said.

There is a huge economic impact and Vernon is unique, in that while it doesn’t have a lot of residents, it does have a lot of industry. It was set up that way years ago,” he said.

“Vernon is the crankshaft, the piston, the turbocharger for the L.A. economy,” McFarlane said.

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