The state Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would dissolve Vernon, pushing forward an unprecedented effort to wrest control of the embattled city from its current leadership.
The bill, which is the first known attempt by the state Legislature to disincorporate a charter city in California, passed on a final vote of 62 to 7, receiving support from Democrats and Republicans.
The legislation was authored by Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), who proposed the bill in response to a series of corruption scandals that resulted in criminal charges against two former city administrators and the former mayor of the industrial city south of downtown L.A.
The Times last year reported on high salaries, travel expenses and perks enjoyed by top city leaders, including Eric Fresch, a longtime attorney for the city who earned more than $1.6 million in 2008.
Pérez said there was an "unprecedented pattern of corruption" in Vernon, a city of fewer than 100 residents that has faced criticism for generations that it is run as a personal fiefdom for a small clique. Perez's bill would make Vernon an unincorporated area overseen by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, a move he said would result in a more open government.
"We have an absolute obligation to make sure that we have transparent, accountable government at every level in the state of California," he said.
For months, Vernon officials and a coalition of local business and labor groups have been fighting to derail the bill, AB 46, which they say would damage the city's business climate. The city is home to an estimated 50,000 workers and major companies such as Farmer John and Gavina Gourmet Coffee.
Thursday marked the first opposition to the bill from other legislators. Those urging a "no" vote included Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) and Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield). All three said they feared Pérez's bill would cause a loss of jobs in Vernon.
"We cannot afford to continue an assault on private business," Grove said, adding that she wanted Pérez to consider other methods of addressing problems in Vernon's government.
The bill now goes to the state Senate, where Vernon hopes to win a more positive reception.
After the vote, Marisa Olguin, president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, released a statement criticizing Pérez for "ramrodding" AB 46 through the Assembly. Olguin also urged state senators to come to the conclusion that "disincorporating Vernon is simply a bad idea."
Representatives of Vernon said they are confident of their chances of defeating the bill.
"The Senate will be more sober and more thoughtful and less subject to the influence of Speaker Pérez," said Gene Erbin, a Sacramento lobbyist working for Vernon.
Pérez responded to some concerns about his bill during Thursday's debate, reiterating his promise to add amendments that would maintain local zoning and land-use laws and preserve some benefits of the city's infrastructure, such as affordable utility rates. The amendments will ensure that the city remains "a driving economic force," he said.
Supporters of the bill said they were skeptical of claims that disincorporation would cost the region thousands of jobs.
"We keep hearing that jobs are going to leave.... Yet at no point have we heard exactly why that would happen, or how," said Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita), the bill's principal co-author. Smyth also pointed out that Vernon's electricity rates recently rose due to market conditions. The rates are one of the key benefits local business groups have cited in their arguments against the bill.
Other representatives focused their comments on Vernon's unusual municipal government. Nearly all of the voters in Vernon live in city-owned residences, and legislators argue that the arrangement leaves them beholden to City Hall.
Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) described Vernon as a "long-running joke" where "voter-choice and independence never existed."
"We all here ran for office; we convinced voters to elect us," Bradford said during the debate. "That does not happen in the city of Vernon."
Pérez noted that the city has held only one competitive election since the 1980s and that all but one of the City Council members were appointed to their seats. He also listed a series of criminal indictments against Vernon officials dating to the 1940s.