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Vernon considers selling its controversial homes, apartments

August 12, 2011 | 10:17 am

Vernon considers selling controversial homes and apartments
Members of a newly formed Vernon Housing Commission said they would consider selling the controversial homes and apartments owned by the city to address concerns about its voting population.

The commission, which met for the first time Thursday evening, is the centerpiece of a governmental reform effort launched in response to a bill in the state Legislature calling for Vernon to be disbanded. The industrial city, located just south of downtown Los Angeles, has just 112 residents and has been mired in a series of corruption scandals in recent years.

For decades, nearly all of Vernon's residents have lived in homes and apartments owned and managed by City Hall, in effect making the council members landlords over the city's voters. State lawmakers say the arrangement has enabled a small group of leaders to control Vernon's government with few checks and balances.

Now the homes will be controlled by the commission, which includes the city's mayor, three local businessmen, two residents and an employee of one of Vernon's largest companies.

"The perception of corruption is in some ways just as bad as corruption," said Mike Hughes, one of the commissioners. "Our goal here is to put a barrier between city leaders and the voters."

In addition to the possibility of selling the 31 residences (five of which are in neighboring Huntington Park), the commission will also formulate a conflict-of-interest policy for future lessees. The Times reported last year that more than a dozen relatives of city officials were awarded leases at subsidized rates, including four nephews of city administrator Mark Whitworth.

Vernon's new ethics advisor, former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, said in his report that 25 of 62 registered voters in the city had direct connections to City Hall. He recommended that the city adjust rates to market levels and "establish policies that avoid favoritism to city personnel and their relatives and friends."

Van de Kamp also advised that the commission consider selling all of the homes.

Commission Chairman Eric Gustafson said he wasn't ready to take a position on whether or not the homes should be sold. Gustafson, like Hughes, is connected to a family business with deep ties to the city.

"This is a monumental step for the city," Gustafson said. "I want to look at every option."

Before the meeting, he and more than a 100 other supporters of Vernon gathered for a rally at a field behind one of the city's fire stations. City officials, labor leaders and the Chamber of Commerce have been fighting for months to stop the disincorporation bill, AB 46, from passing in the Legislature.

Whitworth, the city administrator, said he wanted the debate over the city's housing to be "laid to rest."

"We're trying to tackle every issue," Whitworth said. "People in the city are coming together. People come up to me all around the city and they say 'keep it up, you're doing a great job, just keep doing what you're doing.' "

Business leaders at the rally said it was time for Assembly Speaker John Perez, the author AB 46, to back away from his plan to completely shut down City Hall.

"We have to give reform a chance -- Vernon has shown a willingness to change," said Greg Longstreet, president and chief executive of Farmer John Meats and the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. "Perez is really a part of the success story here … this city will be better run."

But so far Perez has shown no signs of dropping the bill, which received strong support in the Assembly. He has also introduced a companion bill, AB 781, that calls for a new special district to take over Vernon's electric utility and maintain some of the other services it provides to local businesses.

Both bills are expected to be heard by the state Senate later this month.


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Grand jury investigating Vernon official's business deal with wife

-- Sam Allen

Photo: A Vernon billboard near downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Christina House / For The Times