In Tiny Vernon, a Surge in Voters
At a time when many cities struggle with voter participation, the tiny town of Vernon has seen its number of voters rise by about 50% in the last couple of months.
And that is adding to suspicions as voters in the industrial community south of downtown Los Angeles go to the polls Tuesday for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Vernon’s official population is 91. But the number of registered voters has shot up from less than 60 to 86. About a dozen people registered in the weeks leading up to the March 27 deadline for Tuesday’s election, the city’s first in 25 years.
The election pits three challengers who moved into town earlier this year against longtime incumbents -- Mayor Leonis Malburg, Mayor Pro Tem Thomas A. Ybarra, and Councilman W. Michael McCormick -- who have ruled Vernon for up to 50 years.
The new voters are all the more mysterious because officials have long controlled who moves into the community’s few, mostly city-owned homes.
Vernon’s leaders have in the past suggested that the challengers might bring in homeless people to help them get elected. But the challengers say it is the city that has imported “ringer residents” for election day.
The stakes of the election are high: whoever wins steers a city with more than $100 million in cash and investments, more than double its general operating budget.
“There are so many unknown factors with this election,” said Steve Freed, president of the Vernon Property Assn. “Neither the challenging candidates nor the incumbent officials have presented the property and business owners with an agenda of what their plans are if elected.”
In early January, eight people took up residence in a boxy commercial building. Within days, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council.
Almost immediately they began to be followed by private investigators, and utility crews turned off their power. The building they shared was red-tagged by inspectors. Eventually, police and other officials drilled holes in the locks of the property and evicted the would-be office-seekers.
The newcomers were accused of being part of a takeover plot by Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of nearby South Gate nearly bankrupted that city.
Cris Summers, who secured the housing for the eight people, is a disbarred attorney and a friend of Robles.
She denies that Robles is involved and said she wanted county election officials to scrutinize every vote in the election.
The eight residents’ voter registrations were rescinded, and the incumbents voted to cancel the election and reelect themselves.
But even as the newcomers pitched tents outside the property or slept in cars, they got a break.
On March 10, a Superior Court judge ruled that officials had acted illegally when they stripped the three men’s voter registrations and canceled the election.
The election was back on.
The last time there was an election in Vernon, in 1980, the town’s retired police chief, Spence E. Hogan, declared himself a candidate. He was quickly evicted from his city-owned home.
Hogan moved in with Philip Reavis, then president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, and they both ran for office.
Hogan won the vote count but lost the election after the then-city administrator, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., disqualified six ballots.
This time around, Malkenhorst’s son, Bruce Jr., is the Vernon city clerk -- the official responsible for counting the votes.
The attorney for challengers Don Huff, David Johnson and Alejandro Lopez has filed a lawsuit seeking to disqualify the majority of the city’s residents -- most of whom are city employees and the relatives of employees and the city’s leaders -- from voting.
The suit alleges that because most of them live in highly subsidized city-owned housing and are employed by Vernon, they are beholden to the city’s incumbents.
Their suit names most of the city’s residents, including several who registered to vote in Vernon only recently.
Most of the newest voters are registered at city-owned properties. The suit alleges that more than a dozen of the residents do not live in the city.
Malburg’s son John, who had been registered to vote in the city until recently, is named in the suit.
However, the most recent records no longer show him as being registered to vote in the town.
In the past, city leaders have been investigated over whether they actually live in Vernon.
A current criminal investigation by the district attorney’s public integrity division is looking, in part, into whether the mayor lives in the town.
Huff, 41, said that while campaigning, he has canvassed neighborhoods and approached dozens of city residents.
“I went up to about 15 people who listened to me” even though some expressed dismay about the lawsuit, Huff said. “The rest told me to get off their property.”
City officials have consistently declined to comment about the upcoming election.
However, in the past they have expressed concerns to other cities’ officials that the challengers would round up voters, including homeless people, to tilt election results.
Voter records do not suggest this has happened, but this week, a Times reporter went to a business property at 2675 S. Santa Fe Ave. and found that it had been set up to accept residents.
The brown-brick property, which had recently been a kind of discount store according to the previous lessees, was furnished with beds and stacks of mattresses -- still wrapped in plastic -- near the front door.
Written in marker were instructions by the would-be council members’ attorney not to open the wrapped mattresses.
The attorney, who is named Albert Robles (and who is representing the ex-South Gate treasurer of the same name in federal court as he seeks a retrial) said that he had been contacted by the religious group Victory Outreach about establishing a Christian-based rehabilitation facility in Vernon.
The attorney said he wanted to help the church group out, but also said he expected “four or five” of the rehab patients to register to vote.
Pastor Mark Garcia of Victory Outreach declined to comment. But Robles said that when officials found out, the owner turned against the idea and the plan was abandoned and the would-be residents left.
In the end, records show that only one person had registered at the address--a relative of one of the eight people who had moved into the town in January. Attorney Robles said that resident will not vote in the election.
Deborah Wright, executive liaison to the Los Angeles County Registrar, said it was likely that many of the issues would not be settled until after the election -- and probably in a courtroom.
But she said that whether it’s the city or the challengers asking who lives where and whether they should be allowed to vote, such issues tend to be tricky to unravel -- assuming they ever are.
“In California, we basically go on the honor system,” said Wright.
“And the experience of myself and my colleagues ... has been that intentional fraud is so unusual. But in a place like this, where there is such a tiny number of people to begin with, two, three, four oddities is a huge percentage of the voter file.”