Carl Algee's job as a $25-an-hour security guard at Vernon's municipal power plant came with one big perk — a city-owned apartment at well below market rent.
There was also one catch.
"When I got the apartment, they said I had to register to vote … and they said, 'You'll know who to vote for,'" Algee recalled. "It was a vague statement, but I knew what they meant — the incumbents."
Algee said he got his ballot by mail and decided to go to City Hall to fill it out and turn it in; as he stood at the counter, a city employee hovered nearby, watching him mark his choices.
"I pointed to one of their candidates and looked at her and she nodded, yes, that one," he said. "So I went to the next one and looked at her and she nodded again. That's how it worked."
Algee, a former Los Angeles police officer who was fired from his Vernon job in 2007, was a member of what some might consider an exclusive club: the Vernon voter.
Numbering only about 90, Vernon's residents are historically pliant, undemanding and loyal. The largely industrial city selects its own residents, who have rewarded council members by keeping them in office for decades.
The arrangement has ensured remarkable political stability in a city considered one of the region's economic engines, with 1,800 businesses and an annual municipal budget of nearly $300 million.
Four years ago, prosecutors brought corruption charges against the city administrator and the mayor, who had been in office more than half a century and was a scion of the family that founded Vernon. Last week, the state attorney general subpoenaed records from the city after reports in The Times of lavish salaries, benefits and expenses enjoyed by top Vernon officials.
But through it all, Vernon has largely been impervious to outside judgment or intervention, in part because of who constitutes its electorate.
It is a city, critics say, that tolerates no surprise voters — where night-shift security guards cannot sleep on cots or beds lest they gain grounds to claim residency, where any form of camping is strictly prohibited and where no new housing is allowed. One of the last privately owned homes in Vernon was bulldozed in the early 1980s to make way for a parking lot.
Now, City Hall owns virtually all of the housing and doles it out very selectively. Over the years, most of the residents were city employees who depended on Vernon for their livelihood: jobs and cheap housing. More recently, many of the employees have been replaced by friends and family members of department heads and council members.
Some employees of a Manhattan Beach carwash run by Councilman Richard Maisano receive heavily subsidized city housing. So does the nephew of City Administrator Mark Whitworth.
In neighboring cities, high salaries and allegations of corruption have sparked protests that in some cases have brought major changes. But state officials said they see little chance of protest inside Vernon.
And without a voter revolt, it's going to be difficult to bring much change to the city.
"A political solution on the ground involving voters, a civic movement, that isn't possible in Vernon," said state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate). "They're all beholden to the machine. It's like they said of Mexico — it's the perfect dictatorship because they have elections. Vernon is the perfect corporation because it pretends to be a city."
De La Torre and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said they have studied other ways to change the leadership in Vernon but found no easy options.
"It would be very hard to create something where there would be a legitimate vote of the people," Pérez said, "because the council for all intents and purposes controls who their electorate is."
Close to the vest
Most of the city's five council members live in tidy, wood-frame homes with green lawns tucked hard in a world of gray smokestacks, meat packers, heavy industry, power plants and transmission lines. As he pulled out of the parking lot of his city-owned apartment building on East 50th Street wearing a Boy Scout leader uniform, Councilman William Michael McCormick said he didn't have time to talk.
"Call City Hall. Call the city administrator," he said. "I have a meeting to go to."
Coming to the door of his home on Fruitland Avenue, Councilman William Davis politely fended off a reporter's questions while saying he had to go to a doctor's appointment.
"It's too bad what's going on in Bell and Maywood," Davis said, while declining to talk about Vernon. "You should talk to the city administrator. That's where you're supposed to go."
At the home of Mayor Hilario "Larry" Gonzales on Furlong Place, in the shadow of City Hall, a woman who answered the door said he was not available.
"Go to City Hall," she said. "You have to go there."
Up the block, Cesar Avila, 22, said his family found their city-owned home through Councilman Maisano. Avila said his father works with Maisano at a carwash in Manhattan Beach.
"He's helped us a lot and he's a good man," said Avila.
The Avilas have lived in Vernon for three years — during which there have been only been routine ballot measures passed and no contested council elections — and he said they have not been pressured to vote one way or another.
But Algee, the former security guard, tells a different story. He said his former boss made it clear that his job and apartment were tied to voting the city's way.
"It was their city and they were going to control it," said Algee, who was fired after what he described as a falling-out with his boss. "They were not going to let any outsiders in and if you didn't play the game, you were out forever. Unfortunately, I couldn't play the game."
Living in Vernon had its ups and downs. The houses are surrounded by miles of concrete and rumbling big-rigs, with little open space, no retail stores and no movie theaters. But the privacy of living in Vernon — especially on the weekends — is attractive and the rents are unbeatable.
"I had this great job making $350 a day for doing almost nothing, and I had this great apartment for $140 a month," Algee said. "Like I told them, of course I'll vote for whomever. It's their city, and their politicians and their power plant. It's their little world, and everyone knows it."
Protecting the status quo
For most of Vernon's more than 100 years of existence as an "exclusively industrial" town, the city's few residents and hundreds of business owners have benefited from its odd makeup.
Business owners have benefited from low taxes and from the city-owned power utility, which offered rates as much as 30% lower than those available in Los Angeles and neighboring cities.
Vernon was co-founded by John Leonis, and his family kept tight control over the city for much of its history. Over the last 85 years, outsiders have repeatedly tried to break what they consider the fiefdom of Vernon. In 1925, The Times quoted one foe as saying: "In that town, you do not file papers at the City Hall. You simply hand them to John [Leonis] and he puts them in his pocket. If he is in favor of the proposition, it goes through; if he is opposed, that's the last you hear of it."
Over the years, law enforcement agencies have investigated Vernon and in some cases filed charges. But with the voting bloc under control, little changed inside the city limits.
The most recent challenge to the Vernon power structure occurred in 2006, when three men moved into a ramshackle building crisscrossed by abandoned railroad tracks and filed to run for the Vernon City Council.
The city evicted the men, hired armed private investigators to follow them and fought in court to cancel the election, arguing that the challengers were not lawful residents. A judge agreed with Vernon's argument that the men were outsiders trying to steal the election by taking advantage of the city's small population. But the judge ruled that it was not illegal and the election went forward.
Eddie Saenz Jr., who lived in Vernon for more than 30 years and whose father worked in the city's water department, attended a special meeting that year hosted by the incumbents at a local restaurant. Many of the 90 or so residents were there.
The council members said that if they were reelected, "things would remain the same," Saenz said. "It was like a pep rally," he said. "Like, 'Let's get the victory for the home team.'"
The incumbents were all reelected.
Since then, the city has passed measures that help it maintain control of voter rolls and protect City Hall against the sudden loss of a council majority. Through a special election, the city last year passed a measure extending council members' terms from four years to five years and making it so only one of them would come up for election each year.
Vernon has also managed to avoid the state's mandate for municipal redevelopment agencies to build affordable housing.
Cathy Creswell, the state's deputy director of housing policy development, said that for years Vernon has filed paperwork with the Department of Housing and Community Development saying it was exempt from requirements that it set aside money from the redevelopment agency to build affordable housing.
She said the state never analyzed the exemption, which allowed Vernon between 1999 and 2008 to withhold about $10 million that otherwise would have been designated for affordable housing, The Times has found. But that's going to change, Creswell said, adding that the state now intends to "take a look at the city of Vernon's findings and exemptions."
For years, the city argued that employees, including utility workers, needed to be housed in the city-owned properties so they could be in Vernon in case of an emergency. But in the last two years, many of the longtime residents — including Saenz — were evicted and replaced by people connected to city leaders, including relatives and friends, according to records obtained by The Times.
Whitworth, the city administrator, said he couldn't talk at length about Vernon's residential situation because he's new to the position. He said it is true that fewer city employees live there now.
But he emphasized that Vernon has been undergoing changes in recent years, including policies moderating high compensation, and that he thought it would all be for the better.
"The council is active and interested in taking positive action," he said. "You're going to be pleased. I think all people are going to be pleased."
Vernon is home to 1,800 businesses, including big names such as Farmer John, Gaviña Gourmet Coffee and True Religion jeans. With the revelations about high pay and lavish travel spending, some businesses are fighting for a stronger voice in city policy. One radical idea being floated: giving business owners a vote in elections. Businesses are given voting rights in some states, but not California.
"Many business owners feel that the only way the city of Vernon can truly have a representative government," said Steve Freed, president of the Vernon Property Assn., "would be for the property owners to be allowed to vote in city elections."
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.