Until the Bell scandal, local government had largely escaped the disdain that voters reserve for Washington and Sacramento. Bell undermined confidence in the checks and balances that normally prevent a corrupt regime from maintaining control of a local entity.
Belatedly, the exposure of the Rizzo regime in Bell brought renewed scrutiny to the brazen corruption in adjacent Vernon, creating an opportunity to abolish an essentially criminal enterprise posing as a city government. Assembly Speaker John A. Perez has introduced a bill to unincorporate cities with fewer than 150 residents. There is only one in California: Vernon.
While residents and the media could plausibly claim ignorance of what was going on at Bell City Hall, Vernon has never made any pretense of normal governance. Founded as a family fiefdom, it has remained so for a century. John Leonis, Vernon’s co-founder, served 45 years on its City Council. His grandson, Leonis Mahlberg, served 53.
If any real-life entity reflects the cynical manipulation of public institutions portrayed in the iconic movie “Chinatown,” it is Vernon. The hereditary dons of the Vernon council serve for decades, jetting off on lavish “trade missions” to Asia, Europe and elsewhere at public expense. They ruthlessly suppress even the shadow of dissent, and rigorously control who is allowed to live in nearly every dwelling in the city. Bruce V. Malkenhorst at one time served simultaneously as Vernon’s city manager, finance director, city clerk, redevelopment director, treasurer and chief of light and power, drawing the highest salary of any public official in California. After 33 years as city administrator, he passed the job to his son, Bruce V. Malkenhorst Jr. His annual pension payout of $509,664.60 remains the highest in the state.
Despite periodic indictments (the elder Malkenhorst is currently awaiting trial on charges of having misspent $60,000 of city money for golf trips, massages, meals and political contributions), Vernon has been largely ignored. A recent Times investigation detailed how the latest Vernon power broker, Eric Fresch, has raked in $7.5 million in salary and fees in the last five years. The 2,500 businesses that provide Vernon’s huge tax base sometimes grumble over these excesses, but they have no voting power.
Vernon has survived for the same reasons Bell fell into the hands of predators: ruthlessness on the part of city officials and the facelessness of the victims. Those who control the city government have always displayed contempt for the opinions of outsiders. When three interlopers tried to register to vote using a warehouse address in 2006, the city cut off their utilities and hired armed security to shadow them around the clock. When the trio filed to run for office, Vernon canceled the election. It took a court order to force a vote and another to ensure the votes were fairly counted.
What’s really protected Vernon all these decades is the disregard for the thousands who work in the city’s factories each day but live outside Vernon’s tightly controlled borders. The city has an assessed property tax base of $4.1 billion to support a population of 96. Next-door Bell has a tax base of $1.1 billion to support a population of 40,000, many of whom are employed in Vernon. The world was outraged when the South African apartheid regime segregated the urban black population into impoverished “Bantustans,” cut off from the white-controlled commercial wealth. Why should we permit similar disparities in the heart of our region?
Vernon has 55 cops to patrol its streets, Bell just 38. Vernon could easily support high-quality public services for the half-dozen threadbare cities that surround it and provide the workers that sustain it, but instead the city lavishes huge salaries on a handful of municipal pirates.
Few care. The municipal soap operas of the immigrant-dominated cities of Southeast Los Angeles elicit ridicule but far too little empathy for the hardworking residents. That Vernon is allowed to steal the money that could fund libraries and parks is shrugged off. It’s time to end this vestige of “Chinatown” cynicism. Vernon should be wiped off the map. The swiftest way to do that is to adopt Perez’s bill and ensure it is signed by our next governor, Jerry Brown.
Rick Cole, a former mayor of Pasadena, is the city manager of Ventura.