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Vernon mayor admits a few 'bad apples' but offers spirited defense of embattled city

February 16, 2011 |  7:38 am

The mayor of embattled Vernon made a spirited defense of the city this week, acknowledging there were a few "bad apples" but insisted City Hall serves its business community well.

Mayor Hilario “Larry” Gonzales' speech at a Vernon City Council meeting came as the city continued to gear up for its fight against the state Legislature, which is calling for Vernon to be disincorporated. The city unveiled a slick ad campaign highlighting the city's economic contribution to the regional economy.

The ads are a part of the city’s campaign against AB 46, a bill being considered in the Legislature that would dissolve Vernon and make it a part of Los Angeles County. The bill is in response to reports of high salaries earned by top officials and the indictment last fall of its former city administrator.

“We have done nothing wrong. Like any other thing, you may have ... bad apples. But that is not the city’s fault. Those are individuals, and the individual things that they do,” Gonzales said to a group of business people who attended Tuesday’s council meeting.

It was unclear which individuals Gonzales was referring, and he declined an interview request.

Three Vernon officials have faced public corruption charges in recent years, including Donal O’Callaghan, a former city administrator who was indicted last year on conflict-of-interest charges related to the hiring of his wife as a city contractor.

Gonzales was one of three Vernon council members who testified in grand jury proceedings that led to O’Callaghan’s indictment. Gonzales’ speech was at times emotional; he described his youth in Vernon and recalled meeting his wife when they were both students at a local school. He was appointed to the Vernon council in 1974, and became mayor in 2009.

Many of Vernon’s 95 residents have connections to city leaders, and the city rarely holds contested elections. In addition to Gonzales, three of the other four councilmen were appointed to their seats, not elected.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, who authored the disincorporation bill, has argued that Vernon’s municipal government lacks accountability and transparency because the city is without a true electorate.

Perez, who represents Vernon’s district, has characterized the city as a fiefdom controlled by a small group of powerful individuals. But Vernon officials say the city provides important services to its business population, and that disincorporation would lead to major job losses.

The city is home to about 1,800 businesses which employ an estimated 50,000 workers from surrounding communities such as Maywood, Bell and Huntington Park. City officials have also emphasized their intention to reform. On Tuesday, the council approved the hiring of a team of independent ethics advisors who will analyze Vernon’s policies and procedures and offer recommendations.

The team will be led by former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, and also includes Robert M. Stern, former general counsel of the California Fair Political Practices Commission; and Cynthia Kurtz, former Pasadena city manager. AB 46 is expected to be considered by the Assembly’s Local Government Committee in March or April.

A Vernon spokesman said the advertisements will appear on cable TV and radio.

Video: City of Vernon promotional video. Credit: City of Vernon, via YouTube

-- Sam Allen and Hector Becerra