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Key state Senate committee passes bill to disincorporate Vernon

Assembly Speaker John Pérez on Wednesday moved another step closer to disbanding the city of Vernon as a key state Senate committee backed his disincorporation bill on a 6-3 vote.

The bill, considered to be the first-ever attempt by the Legislature to dissolve a charter city, now moves to the full Senate, where it could be voted on in the next few weeks. The Assembly has already overwhelmingly approved it.

If signed into law, the measure would eliminate Vernon’s municipal government and replace it with a new special district overseen by Los Angeles County.

Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, has argued that the legislation, AB 46, is the only way to end corruption in Vernon, an industrial city with about 1,800 businesses but fewer than 100 residents. Three Vernon officials have been indicted on public-corruption charges in recent years, and critics have for decades claimed the city is a fiefdom controlled by a small group of individuals.

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Most of Vernon’s residents lease homes and apartments owned by the city, and public records show that many are relatives or associates of city officials. In his presentation to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, Pérez argued the arrangement leaves Vernon’s voters beholden to city leaders.

“There is no independent electorate here,” Pérez said. “So it comes to the Legislature to respond.... The question falls squarely on our shoulders.”

Vernon officials have been fighting to defeat AB 46 along with a coalition of business and labor groups who say the bill would lead to a loss in jobs. The city’s supporters also argue that the bill would violate the state Constitution.

The city has also approved a package of governmental reforms in recent weeks, including pay cuts and term limits for the City Council, and a new commission to manage the city-owned homes.

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“Vernon is not perfect. We’ve faced many challenges … but I’ve addressed those challenges,” City Administrator Mark Whit-

worth said during his testimony in the hearing. “I really believe it’s working.”

Pérez has said the reforms are merely “window dressing.”

He has introduced a separate companion bill to address concerns about the economic effects of disincorporation. That bill, AB 781, would form a new special district to take over Vernon’s electric utility, Fire Department and other services. It would also set specific restrictions on new taxes and regulations imposed on local businesses.

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The Senate Governance and Finance Committee is expected to address AB 781 on July 6. A spokesman for Pérez’s office said AB 46 wouldn’t be voted on by the full Senate before that hearing.

During Wednesday’s debate, members of the committee said they would not approve Pérez’s legislation unless it addressed their economic concerns.

“Los Angeles County has a terrible unemployment problem, and we can’t afford to have the unemployment rise,” said state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge). “I may vote on it today — just today — but it’s not a guarantee that we’ll go forward if the second bill doesn’t come back and really protect the businesses and the people who work at those businesses.”

AB 46 received strong bipartisan support in the Assembly, but the Senate committee was divided along party lines.

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Liu voted in favor along with five other Democrats, while three Republican senators — Doug La Malfa, Bob Huff and Jean Fuller — voted against.

Fred MacFarlane, a spokesman for Vernon, said the city and its lobbyists would redouble their efforts to communicate with the senators in the coming weeks.

“While also being unconstitutional, this legislation would do harm to the engine of the L.A. County economy,” MacFarlane said in an interview after the vote.

“It would be like turning the ignition off your car when you’re driving down the freeway at 70 miles per hour.”

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sam.allen@latimes.com

katherine.mather@latimes.com


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