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Vernon disincorporation bill faces key Senate hearing as battle heats up

June 22, 2011 |  9:05 am

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A state Senate committee on Wednesday is scheduled to take up a controversial bill that would dissolve the city of Vernon.

A high-stakes political battle is expected over Assembly Speaker John Perez's plan to dissolve Vernon’s municipal government and replace it with a special district overseen by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. His bill, AB 46, won strong support in the Assembly but is expected to receive greater scrutiny in the Senate.

John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general who is working for Vernon as a paid ethics advisor, wrote a letter in support of the embattled city to the members of the Senate committee.

"It is difficult to fathom why Vernon should not be given a reasonable period to continue its rehabilitation efforts and make its case that it is making successful governance reforms of a lasting nature," wrote Van de Kamp, who also served as Los Angeles County district attorney and ran for governor in 1990.

Perez has argued that disincorporation is the only way to eliminate corruption in the city, which has been plagued by a series of scandals in recent years.

Vernon, a city of 1,800 businesses but fewer than 100 residents, has been fighting the bill with a multimillion-dollar team of lawyers, lobbyists and public-relations consultants. City officials and their supporters argue that the bill is unconstitutional and would lead to a loss in jobs.

The city has also approved a series of internal reforms in recent weeks, including pay cuts for the City Council and the creation of an advisory commission to oversee city-owned housing. Most of Vernon’s residents live in homes and apartments owned by the city, and critics such as Perez have said the arrangement prevents legitimate elections.

Van de Kamp has been reviewing the city government since February, when he was hired as a $550-an-hour ethics advisor. He is being assisted by Robert Stern, the president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that studies California governance, and Cynthia Kurtz, the former city manager of Pasadena. Their full report will be completed next month, Van de Kamp said.

In March, he was featured in an advertisement promoting Vernon that was published in several local newspapers. Van de Kamp said city officials misled him into appearing in the ad.

He emphasized in his letter that he was an "independent outside observer," and reiterated the point in an interview Tuesday.  

"I'm here to report the facts. ... I don't feel beholden to anyone," he said. "Should I hide my head under a rock? I don't think so."

Stern, who is being paid at a rate of $450 an hour, said he doesn't have a position on AB 46 and that he did not believe Van de Kamp intended to campaign for Vernon.

Over the last four months, Vernon has paid Van de Kamp's law firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf, about $64,000, according to city warrant registers. Stern and Kurtz have been paid separately.

Van de Kamp said he's discussed AB 46 with several key legislators, including Perez and state Sens. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

He said the lawmakers should "be careful about rushing to judgment" on AB 46.

"What we’re finding is that Vernon has moved very quickly to reform," he said.

John Vigna, a spokesman for Perez's office, issued a statement in response to Van de Kamp's letter Tuesday.

"Speaker Perez has nothing but the utmost respect for Mr. Van de Kamp, but the fact is that Vernon’s reforms are merely toothless window dressing," he said.

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-- Sam Allen

Photo: Assembly Speaker John Perez, right. Credit: Associated Press

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