Fresch began his career in Vernon about the same time, working as a legal advisor to the city and close aide to Malkenhorst.
When Malkenhorst was charged with misuse of public funds in 2006, Fresch filled the void. As city administrator he received about $1.4 million in 2006, $1.5 million in 2007 and $1.65 million in 2008, according to records obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act. In 2008 he billed for 363 days of work, records show, including every Saturday, every Sunday and every holiday except Christmas.
Fresch commuted to work in Vernon during this period from his four-bedroom, hillside home in the Marin County town of Tiburon, often flying first class on the city's dime. While in Southern California, he had his own driver and bodyguards, also paid for with city funds.
Neither CalPERS nor the city would provide an estimate of Fresch's pension. Records show he was awarded a special public safety classification in 2004, which boosts the percentage of his salary used to calculate his pension. It's unusual for people not working in emergency services to receive such pensions, but the city argued at the time that his work as an attorney qualified him for the benefit.
Some of Vernon's toughest critics said Fresch's exit could be significant. Rick Cole, a local government expert who has been an outspoken critic of Vernon, said Fresch's departure provides the city with an opportunity to change its governance structure, either through continued activism from local businesses or a larger, more independent voting population. Only 52 people, many of whom live in city-owned homes and apartments, voted in the city's most recent election.
"There's a window of opportunity here," Cole said. "This entity has been uniquely vulnerable to a city administrator seizing resources without the checks and balances of an electorate."
But former state Assemblyman Hector de la Torre, another Vernon critic, was skeptical of Fresch's plans to leave next year. "That's preposterous. No one is so incredibly vital that they need a seven-month transition for someone else to come and take their place."
Fresch's current contract pays him $525 an hour. Unlike many public-sector service agreements, the contract is open-ended and has no cap on total expenditures. The deal was awarded to Fresch's firm, Law Offices of Eric T. Fresch, but specifically states that no other attorneys would provide services unless approved by the city administrator.
Some of Fresch's connections may still remain in Vernon, even if he ends his contractual relationship with the city next year. His brothers, Curtis and Pat Fresch, have worked as consultants for Vernon, and the latter is still under contract with the city's gas department. Two of the City Council members, Richard Maisano and Daniel Newmire, are friends of the family. Both were appointed to fill vacant seats in 2009, the same year Eric Fresch transitioned from city administrator to legal consultant.
John Van de Kamp, a former attorney general who is working as Vernon's ethics advisor, said that more personnel changes are likely to happen once Vernon hires a new city attorney. "This is part of that entire process," he said. "It cannot happen immediately, but it's coming."
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.