Supervisors weigh ending Vernon's control over its housing

Los Angeles County supervisors next week will consider pursuing legislation that would drastically reduce Vernon's historic control over who gets to live and vote in the tiny city, marking the latest effort by outsiders to bring change to the industrial enclave south of downtown L.A.

The proposal, introduced by Supervisor Gloria Molina, calls for an amendment to the California Constitution that would direct that no more than 10% of the housing owned or controlled by a charter city can be occupied by city employees or by people whose connections to City Hall could constitute a conflict of interest.

Though Vernon has only about 90 residents, almost of all of them have close ties to the city's government and to the people who run the city.

Critics, including county prosecutors, have argued that the arrangement has kept control of Vernon in the hands of a ruling few, including some of the most highly paid officials in the state. The city has been able to weather repeated criminal investigations, and its City Council members — some of them in office for more than 30 years — rarely face election opponents.

"The city's 90 or so residents eligible to vote reside in city-owned housing and are financially beholden to those in power," Molina said. "A permanent solution is required so that those that vote for the city's future, or the city's future leaders, are independent voters not beholden to the Vernon city government."

Molina's proposal comes two weeks after Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley suggested that Vernon be disincorporated, arguing that such a drastic option might be the only way to end the decades of control by a small group of people and repeated allegations of public corruption. A Los Angeles County grand jury indicted Donal O'Callaghan, Vernon's former city administrator, last month on charges of conflict of interest and misappropriation of public funds involving two contracts the city established with his wife.

The Times revealed this summer that several Vernon officials have made between $500,000 and more than $1 million a year in recent years, with Eric T. Fresch, a former city administrator and city attorney now paid as a legal consultant, making $1.6 million in 2008.

For decades, city officials populated Vernon's mostly city-owned housing with employees, arguing that they were needed nearby in case of an emergency. But in recent years, Vernon has replaced many of the workers with family members, friends and other close acquaintances of the city's councilmen and top officials. Relatives of Fresch, O'Callaghan, and current city administrator Mark Whitworth have been leased city-owned homes or apartments at subsidized rates.

Vernon officials did not respond to requests for comment on Molina's proposal. In the past, they have opposed suggested changes in city operations, arguing that businesses in Vernon rely on the city services they receive.

The city owns an apartment complex and 18 homes in Vernon, according to occupancy records, with rents ranging from about $150 to $470 per month.

Council members ultimately vote on whether to approve applicants for city housing, though top administrators have often made recommendations.

Molina's motion calls for the county or its Community Development Commission to put the housing units for a city like Vernon out for competitive bidding and would "provide a mechanism to relocate any displaced families or individuals."

She has represented the 1st supervisorial district, which includes Vernon, since 1991.

Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) called the motion "an intriguing idea" and said he expects Vernon to lobby against the effort.

Both the state Senate and Assembly would have to vote in favor of a Constitution resolution, which would then go to the state's voters, he said.

"I wouldn't say it's a slam dunk, but I think it has promise," said De La Torre, who has previously expressed support for considering disincorporating Vernon or merging it with other cities.

"This is a different approach that might get us to the place we all want to get to — to have a freely democratic republic of Vernon."

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