Vernon Moves Toward Disincorporation

APRIL 14, 2011

By KATY GRIMES

An Assembly committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to pass a bill that would disincorporate the charter for the Southern California city of Vernon.

AB 46, authored by Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), takes an approach that clearly concerns many who believe the decision should lie with a vote of local residents — all 96 of them.

The push for the disincorporation of Vernon began after the former city administrator, Donal O’Callaghan, last October was indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury on three felony counts of conflict of interest and misappropriation of public funds. It is the third time in recent history that a Vernon city official has been charged with public corruption.

The California attorney general’s office also has been investigating Vernon after charges were levied against the city’s officials of high salaries, lofty pension costs and lavish travel bills for former and current officials.

Spilling out into the hallways, the hearing room overflowed with several hundred supporters and opponents, leading Capitol Sergeants to open the overflow room upstairs.

“Vernon is a city whose corruption is the worst we’ve seen in the state,” said Pérez as he urged members of the Committee on Local Government to support his bill calling for the dissolution of the city. “The responsibility is ours to act now,” added Pérez, whose district includes Vernon. “We have the authority and the moral obligation to clean this up.”

Joining Perez in support of Vernon’s disincorporation was Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and supporters from the surrounding cities of Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park.

Vernon’s Defense

Gene Erbin, a Sacramento attorney representing Vernon, testified on behalf of the city and said that the bill was unconstitutional. He questioned the Legislature’s legal authority to remove the charter of a charter city. There were no city officials present at the hearing.

Erbin explained to the committee that using “classic special legislation, Vernon was created in 1905, but did not become a charter city until 1988,” for the purpose of unapologetically promoting the city to manufacturing companies and businesses.

Erbin warned that if Vernon is disincorporated, the city’s 1,800 businesses and 55,000 employees will probably have to leave the state, and not just the area, because of Vernon’s special incentives for particular businesses. “Ask why the businesses located in Vernon didn’t locate in Los Angeles County,” Erbin said.

Erbin asked the committee to hold the bill while the city is engaged in “serious efforts to reform,” and told the committee that there has been only one criminal conviction. Vernon has put up a special Web site to defend itself: SaveVernonJobs.com.

Constitutional Issues

A lobbyist who represents another California city quietly explained to me at the hearing that Charter cities have much more control over their business affairs than general law cities. He said Vernon adopted a specific charter that outlines how its government operates, explaining the predominance of manufacturing and industrial types of businesses. The charter leads many to the question of constitutionality of Pérez’s bill to disincorporate Vernon.

The Los Angeles Times reported, “Some experts said valid legal questions exist about whether the state can disband a charter city. The state Constitution affords special home-rule powers to charter cities, which Vernon could invoke in its defense, said Michael Jenkins, a local government attorney and an adjunct professor at the USC School of Law.”

Business owners, employees and labor organizers spoke on behalf of Vernon, and said Pérez’s bill would cause a tremendous loss of jobs. Several talked about the reform process, and said that Vernon can be reformed.

Peter Corselli, a manager at U.S. Growers Cold Storage in Vernon, said the company has been in Vernon for 60 years, and warned that businesses are planning on leaving the state. “We need to maintain the stability of our economic environment,” said Corselli. “This bill is creating havoc. The sooner this bill dies, the better.”

Committee Chairman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, asked Perez to address the issue of jobs and businesses leaving if Vernon is disbanded. “No one takes jobs more seriously than I,” said Pérez. The Speaker said he has been working with stakeholders and said that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the body in authority of Vernon should the city be disincorporated, has the ability to allow Vernon to keep its charter should it choose. But Pérez stressed that the decades-long corruption needed to come to an end.

Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) described Vernon as “a long-running joke” in the local government community and invoked the uprising in Libya as a comparison.

Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton) shared his frustration in trying to contact Vernon city officials to discuss the issues. Norby said he had alternatives to disincorporation to present to the council, but, “I never met with any of the council — they just kept sending lobbyists and lawyers.”

Committee members commended Pérez for having the courage to take on the issue.

“Enough is enough,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville). “The day of reckoning for Vernon is today.”

Each of the seven legislators on the Local Government Committee voted to support Pérez, who reiterated his promise to add provisions to the legislation to protect businesses.

The bill is headed to the Assembly floor for a vote.

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