In most cities, elections happen at least every four years. In Vernon, officeholders haven’t faced opposition in a generation.
Twenty-five years after its elected officials last had a contested ballot, eight strangers took up residence in the tiny city four miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Last month, after just a few days in town, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council in the April 11 election.
Within days, city utility trucks had turned off their power. The building they shared was slapped with red tags by inspectors who said the property was “unsafe and dangerous” as a residence. Strobe lights flashed through their windows. They and some of their relatives were placed under surveillance. Shortly, city police and other officials drilled holes in the locks and evicted the would-be office-seekers.
Having deprived the interlopers of city residence, Vernon officials on Jan. 27 disqualified them from the ballot. In a letter to one of the men, the city clerk accused the three of being part of a plot orchestrated by one of the county’s most notorious political figures, Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of South Gate nearly bankrupted that city.
The letter also said the county counsel had determined that Vernon officials had legal power to decide who was “a valid elector and legally registered to vote” in the city.
On Thursday, after inquiries by The Times, county officials denied that they had told Vernon officials they could take such an action and released to The Times a Feb. 1 letter to Vernon officials from County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. The letter declared that the city’s effort to disenfranchise the eight residents was “without effect.”
But the county’s intervention may have come too late.
At a Vernon City Council meeting Feb. 1, three elderly incumbent council members took turns walking through a door behind their seats. With halting steps, they recused themselves as the council voted to reappoint each of them.
Then the city fathers did the one thing that they almost always do every four years: They voted to cancel the election.
Afterward, the council passed a resolution honoring Mayor Leonis C. Malburg, 76, grandson of one of the city’s founders, for his longevity in office. Letters of congratulations from members of Congress and other California leaders were presented and read to applause.
“I got my 50 years now, and I survived, health-wise and otherwise,” Malburg said. “And I beat my dear grandfather, John Leonis, who had 45 years in the city ... by five years.”
Vernon is unique.
The city’s motto is “exclusively industrial,” and that is almost literally true.
The city is five square miles of low-slung industrial and commercial buildings, laced with railroad tracks. Green space is nearly nonexistent. Among the few splashes of color is the landmark mural of farm animals on the side of the Farmer John pork processing plant.
About 44,000 people work in the city. But only 93 live there, according to the latest census estimate. Nearly all live in heavily subsidized city-owned housing.
The lack of residents means the city doesn’t have to offer as many services as more populous cities. But it has considerable revenue. The city has its own police, fire and health departments and municipal utilities that generate tens of millions of dollars selling electricity and gas to local industries. The money has helped provide lucrative careers for a small group of city officials, most notably former City Administrator Bruce V. Malkenhorst Sr., whose son, Bruce Malkenhorst Jr., is the acting city clerk.
The senior Malkenhorst, who collected nearly $600,000 in salary, bonuses and payments for unused vacation before retiring last year, has been a focus of an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s Public Integrity Division into misappropriation of public funds, according to court records.
There are fewer than 60 registered voters in Vernon, and almost all are either city employees or related to a city official. All five council members have served at least 30 years in office.
“It’s kind of a fiefdom,” said Philip Reavis, 65, a former Vernon Chamber of Commerce president who ran for office in the city’s last contested election -- in 1980. “This place is a little anomaly that exists, kind of by accident. In the whole state of California, there’s nothing like it.”
In the 1980 election, as in this year’s, Vernon officials sought to disqualify a candidate by evicting him.
By strictly limiting who can live in the city, Vernon officials handpick their constituents, said Roy Ulrich, a lawyer and former Vernon property owner who has clashed with city officials. “They only allow people who are city employees. Anything that smells like residential property, they disallow.”
Vernon officials routinely decline to answer reporters’ questions about city issues; on the canceled election they maintained their usual silence. Acting City Clerk Malkenhorst did not return calls for comment. Neither did City Atty. Eric Fresch or any of the council members.
But in a letter dated Jan. 27 -- the day the three office seekers were disqualified -- Malkenhorst laid out the city’s case: It was “not credible that seven adult men and one adult woman would suddenly move from entirely different areas ... on the eve of the nomination deadline for municipal elections, and then happen to nominate three members of this group for elective office five days later.
“In fact, it appears that this voter registration is being orchestrated by others, including ... Albert Robles.”
The proof, Malkenhorst said, was that the person who found the housing for the group and signed their lease agreement was “Cris Summers a.k.a. Cristeta Paguirigan a.k.a. Cristeta Klaparda.”
A disbarred attorney who has been convicted of embezzlement and forgery, Summers worked closely with Robles. She was a key behind-the-scenes operative for Robles in South Gate, which paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a law firm for her work as a litigation consultant despite her record.
Vernon officials feared Summers could find a way to register up to 50 voters and take over the council, said Henry Gonzalez, a South Gate councilman who said Vernon officials had called his city to talk about Summers.
Gonzalez said he understood their concern about Summers’ involvement.
“I wouldn’t trust her because of what she did in the city of South Gate,” he said. “Here’s a city with 57 registered voters, their own power company, and a lot of industry that brings in a lot of bucks for the city. I would be concerned too.”
In an interview, Summers admitted that she had secured the housing but denied that she had played a role in encouraging the three men to seek office.
In fact, she said, as soon as the three asked her help in filing their nomination papers, she knew her history could be used against them.
“I only wish I wasn’t such a distraction to their cause because of my history and my well-known friendship” with Robles, she said.
The property at the center of the dispute, 2721 E. 46th St., is a boxy building in the middle of an asphalt field, bounded by rusted railroad tracks and industry on all sides. A small building with metallic meat-locker doors and a concrete patio, it has five rooms along with amenities such as a stove and refrigerator.
Whether Summers had the legal right to rent out the property remains in dispute. Malkenhorst said she lacked permission from the owner.
Abdolvahid Eskandarian of San Mateo County, listed as the building’s owner, declined to comment.
Summers said she was representing an investor who had already reached an agreement to buy the property.
An Unusual Group
The group of residents that Summers helped place in the building was an unusual one.
Don A. Huff, 41, had run for elected office in Baldwin Park. In an interview, he said he became interested in Vernon because he was trying to find cheaper housing close to his job in Commerce.
“I called Vernon and I said, ‘Is there any way I can apply for a house in Vernon?’ ” Huff said. “They said, ‘We’re sorry, sir. The limited houses we have are for city employees only.’ ”
Huff, a sales director for a paper company, said he was angered by the response and began to show up at the city’s sparsely attended council meetings. An attorney who had represented Huff in a previous case put him in touch with a real estate broker, Garry Summers, Cris Summers’ husband.
Alejandro Lopez, 20, said he and his pregnant girlfriend had been evicted from a house they were renting in Alhambra. He knew Cris Summers through his previous job at a car dealership and asked her for legal help, he said.
Summers arranged for Lopez to sign a lease agreement to move into the Vernon building with Huff. Lopez, a contractor for DirectTV, brought along his co-worker David Johnson, 24, and four other people. They would each pay $500 a month, a bargain for the low-income employees.
“Before I came here, I was staying at my mother’s house in Rancho Cucamonga, sleeping on the floor,” Johnson said.
All agree that the intense Huff almost immediately shared his plans to run for office and asked them to join him.
“He said it would be cool to have all three of us doing it. He said, ‘If I go in by myself, it’s going to be like the Lone Ranger,’ ” Lopez said. “I thought, I’m young, but that sounds like fun. I’d be able to have under my belt that I ran for the City Council.”
On Jan. 13, Huff, Lopez and Johnson soon attracted the attention of security guards, city staff and the acting city clerk when they showed up at City Hall to file their nomination forms. Cris Summers went with them.
“Just the look on their faces was something,” Johnson said. Malkenhorst “was standing there, overlooking us. He said something like, ‘This hasn’t happened in about 30 years.’ ”
Within days, city workers started showing up at their building. “They pound on the metal doors so that it’s really loud,” Lopez recalled. “They pound like they’re law enforcement, but they don’t say law enforcement. They just say, ‘City of Vernon! City of Vernon! Open up!’ ”
On Jan. 27, the roommates heard the buzz of a drill and saw the lock rattle. Moments before, a police official had slipped under their door a letter, ostensibly from the property owner, ordering the residents to leave the premises.
For several hours, they stayed in their cars in a nearby parking lot, then moved to a hotel. On Feb. 1, Huff, Lopez and Johnson and several friends walked to the Vernon council chamber. One of the men carried a picket sign, which read, “Vernon is a Democracy, Not a Dictatorship.”
When it was his turn to speak, Huff began to read a statement. He started calmly, but then seemed to nervously struggle with his words.
“We the residents have sparked a democracy revolution in the city of Vernon,” Huff read, “by doing something which has not been done in over a quarter of a century -- establishing residency.”
Council members ignored his statement, then proceeded with their vote to cancel the election.
But neither side seems to think the saga is over.
On Feb. 4, Summers and her husband were driving on Orange Grove Avenue in South Pasadena when Garry Summers noticed a car that appeared to be following them.
When he knocked on the alleged pursuer’s window, the driver reached for a gun and pointed it at Summers, said South Pasadena Police Sgt. Mike Neff. It was the second incident in a week in which a gun was pulled during surveillance apparently commissioned by Vernon, Neff said.
South Pasadena police arrested the driver, Robert Lampers, 26, of Orange, who identified himself as a private investigator and did not have permission to carry a concealed weapon, Neff said. Police are close to an arrest in the earlier incident, he added.
Vernon officials did not return calls from The Times seeking confirmation of the city’s alleged involvement in the surveillance.
The armed surveillance prompted a call to the Vernon Police Department from South Pasadena Police Chief Dan Watson.
“The whole point of surveillance is to be covert,” Neff said. “But they’re doing this pretty openly, and all it’s doing is escalating things. Their surveillance is pretty worthless right now, so why do it?”
One part of the answer may be that the council’s action did not necessarily end the chance for Huff and his two friends to have a political future in Vernon.
Deborah Wright, executive liaison to the county registrar, said the city had sent her copies of the three men’s candidate nominations with a stamp that read “canceled.”
But the city “doesn’t have the authority to cancel voter registrations,” Wright said. “They have no authority to do that at all.”
Even if the building was illegal, she said, election law does not require voters to live in a legal residence. A 1985 court ruling held that even homeless people have a right to register to vote, she noted.
“A person could be squatting in an abandoned warehouse, and the city may not like it,” she said. “But that doesn’t affect their ability to register to vote.”
For now, the group is holed up in a hotel in Alhambra, considering its next move. Huff said Thursday they may go to court to get back on the ballot.
“Our next step is to get back on that property so we can be able to run for election,” he said. “I’m planning on being in one of those seats. I’m going to be the first one who hits that seat.”