warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Is Vernon The Next Bell?

Benjamin Gottlieb |
March 2, 2011 | 4:33 p.m. PST

Senior News Editor

Outside one of 1,800-plus businesses in Vernon, California (Creative Commons).
Outside one of 1,800-plus businesses in Vernon, California (Creative Commons).
More than 50 years of low taxes, casual business regulations and inexpensive municipal electricity have finally placed the City of Vernon on the chopping block, as state officials continue their unprecedented campaign to legally dissolve the city over corruption charges.

In a bill sponsored by California Assembly Speaker John Perez, the passage of AB46 would effectively disincorporate Vernon – a city with a business to resident ratio of 19 to 1– and place it under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County.

“For years, officials in Vernon have operated with a lack of transparency and accountability that has led to a history of corruption allegations,” Perez said in a statement. “By dissolving the government in the only city in California that exercises direct influence over its voters, AB46 ends the cycle of corruption and abuse in Vernon.”

In a city of just 96 people and over 1,800 businesses ranging from chemical plants to meat processing facilities, more lobbyists, lawyers and consultants are hired by the City of Vernon than there are residents, Perez said.

For Perez, the desire to disincorporate Vernon clearly hits deeper than simply tax dollars or redistricting – the aim is to tackle governmental corruption head-on.

“Vernon could very easily be the next Bell,” said John Vigna, spokesperson for Perez. “The difference with Vernon is that it has such a small population. Most all live in city-owned housing and work for the city directly.”

Last July, the L.A. Times reported that the City of Bell – one of the poorest cities in the county – was paying its city manager nearly $800,000 a year, almost twice the annual salary of the president of the United States. Times Reporters Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives revealed in an exposé that Bell city officials were receiving obscenely large salaries, higher than any other government officials in the nation.

As evidence of unchecked corruption and extortion surfaced in Bell, stoic members of California’s government reasserted the need for transparency amongst local and state-level governing bodies.

But what has prompted state officials to strike down on Vernon now – a city that has battled corruption cases for more than five decades?

Raphael Sonenshein, a professor and Chair for Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton said the Bell scandal now serves as a model for tackling government corruption at the local level.

“Bell has sensitized a lot of people to corruption,” Sonenshein said. “It also brought attention to cities that have been in trouble for years, like South Gate and Vernon.”  

While the City of Bell was caught operating without accountability and transparency to hide mammoth pensions for government officials, Vernon’s history of corruption runs much deeper. Whereas Bell overpaid government officials, Vernon's politicians are essentially in bed with the city's businesses.

“It’d be no different than if your landlord was also your boss and came to you demanding that you fill out your ballot in front of him,” Vigna said. “That’s the level of control they have over their voters.”

However, Vernon has something that Bell lacked: a viable legal defense team, according to Sonenshein.

“They’ve hired the best legal team in the state, the brightest, young lawyers to defend them on this,” Sonenshein said.

Lathman & Watkins spokesman Frank Pizzurro – the firm representing Vernon – said that his firm was not at liberty to discuss Vernon in any capacity.

“This is an ongoing matter and so we cannot discuss [Vernon’s disincorporation] at this time,” Pizzurro said. 

What’s good for transparency, however, is allegedly not good for business.

Save Vernon Jobs – a coalition of Vernon businesses and labor unions – are convinced the proposed AB46 bill would put a significant number of the city’s 56,000 jobs at risk. They also believe that the state has no legal authority to disincorporate the city.

“That’s why labor is so focused on AB46,” said Fred MacFarlane, spokesman for the City of Vernon. “More than 50,000 people go to work in Vernon everyday and $4.5 billion is earned annually in salaries and wages by the city’s workers.”

City backers bused workers from Vernon to City Hall for a rally against disincorporation before a Tuesday meeting of the L.A. City Council. The demonstration stems from fears of the businesses of Vernon leaving if AB46 is passed.

“Business owners would loose these incentives, and they would make decisions to take them out of LA county,” MacFarlane said. “Vernon is one of the best job markets in the nation. Businesses see Vernon as a haven. With the kinds of jobs and businesses we have in Vernon, if they leave, those jobs will never come back.”

But Perez sees the situation differently.

“In any other city in California, the situation in Vernon would not be tolerated by the voters – but in Vernon there are no real voters,” Perez said in a statement. “AB46 is the only real solution to this situation, and I am gratified to see such strong support already building for this responsible remedy.”

Support for Perez’s championed AB46 bill includes more than three-fourths of the California State Legislature and a unanimous L.A. City Council vote of approval rendered Tuesday.

Sonenshein, who focuses on Los Angeles politics and government, said that L.A. in its infancy did not want the huge factories and slaughterhouses of Vernon to be a part of the city. However, corruption in Vernon has ascended to unprecedented levels, Sonenshein said, creating an environment where government and business are essentially in bed with each other.

“Most of the people who live in Vernon work for the city or live in city housing,” Sonenshein said. “So with that, there’s a general feeling that Vernon is a paux-city,”

One major difference between Bell and Vernon is experience.

2008’s “Most Business Friendly City” has fought off corruption allegations before, and hopes to use their financial and legal resources to fight off Sacramento’s desire to revoke the city’s charter.  


Reach Benjamin Gottlieb here.

Follow him on Twitter @benjamin_max.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.