Vernon council adopts reforms as alternative to disincorporation
The Vernon City Council voted unanimously Thursday to adopt a series of reforms proposed by a state senator as an alternative to disincorporation, including doubling the city’s tiny and controversial housing stock.
Vernon still faces a legislative effort in Sacramento to dissolve it, but the vote during a special session of the City Council attracted a rare standing room-only crowd of city workers and business leaders.
State Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) had been an original co-author of the bill, AB 46, to disincorporate the city, but this week withdrew his backing and instead proposed wide-ranging reforms.
His announcement came on the same day that Los Angeles County supervisors expressed deep concerns about taking over Vernon if the bill passed, noting the city’s large debt and downward financial trend. In its current form, AB 46 calls for the county to take over some parts of Vernon’s government.
Vernon has also received scrutiny for some of the salaries paid to top officials, including Eric T. Fresch, a former city administrator who made as much as $1.65 million in 2008. De Leon’s recommendations included a provision limiting salaries and benefits for senior officials.
Among the changes adopted Thursday by the Vernon City Council was the creation of about 50 “independent housing units.” For decades, the city has owned nearly all of the homes and apartments within its borders, and many of the tenants have held close ties to City Hall.
Critics say the arrangement turned Vernon into a tightly controlled fortress with pliant residents and council members who get highly subsidized housing.
The council also voted to reverse the “at will” designation for city employees, including firefighters, who had long worked without the kind of Civil Service protections that municipal employees have in other cities.
In addition, the council voted to prohibit the historically common practice of appointing someone to a vacant council seat instead of holding an election.
In a speech before the council, De Leon said that he “had made no secret of my concern about what had transpired in this city for too long,” but added that the city had a chance at “redemption.”
He was followed by several labor leaders and the president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, who all urged the city to embrace the reforms.
After the public comment, City Administrator Mark Whitworth recommended that the council support the changes. The five council members voted to do so without any debate.
“Vernon can and will become a model city and should not be disincorporated,” Mayor Hilario Gonzales said before the vote.
In private, some city employees and business leaders expressed guarded optimism, noting that it was too soon to know whether some of the long-term reforms would be implemented.
In an interview earlier this week, De Leon said he was hopeful that if Vernon agreed to the reforms, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, the principal author of AB 46, would reconsider the disincorporation proposal.
Pérez was not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon. His office said earlier this week that it still intends to bring the disincorporation bill up for a full Senate vote before the Legislature ends its session Sept. 9.
-- Hector Becerra and Sam Allen
Photo: Vernon City Hall. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times