Council elections in the city of Vernon are usually formalities. The last time a new candidate was voted into office, Richard Nixon was still president.
But this spring, after a series of corruption scandals and a reform effort at City Hall, the industrial city is holding its first open, competitive council election in years. The race has stirred up the tiny community, bringing door-to-door campaigners, fliers and candidates’ forums for the first time in recent memory.
Vernon only has 74 registered voters, though, and some of them resent all the commotion.
“I don’t like answering the dang door when I come home from work, it gets irritating,” said resident Gabriel Early 35, who has lived in Vernon for three years. “I’ve got more knocks in the last two weeks than the last three years.”
In advance of Tuesday’s vote, the race has been marked by a combination of typical campaign scenes — like the Chamber of Commerce canvassing residential blocks — and surreal ones, such as private investigators peering into homes to try to determine how many people live there.
Although it has an estimated workforce of more than 40,000, Vernon is home to 112 people.
“There are like three houses that I consider on the fence, that could go either way for me,” candidate Michael Ybarra said. “I’ve talked to them or tried to talk to them…. It’s going to depend, I think, on how they decide.”
The election for one of five council seats is a milestone for Vernon, which for decades faced charges that its government was run like a fiefdom by highly compensated leaders, some of whom were paid more than $900,000 a year. Many of Vernon’s residents are either city officials, their relatives or acquaintances. Most live in homes and apartments owned by the city which in the past have been rented at subsidized rates.
Critics have argued that the arrangement — a small voting pool with city officials serving as the landlord for most residents — is ripe for corruption and abuse.
So, not surprisingly, voter fraud has emerged as a major campaign issue. Last year, Vernon had 62 registered voters, according to a city report. That number is up by almost 20% and keeps growing as the election nears.
A few weeks ago, Vernon officials learned there were nine voters registered at one small home the city owns. The city launched an investigation and hired private investigators, who are interviewing voters to make sure they actually live in Vernon. The city is also looking into three people who suddenly registered to vote at an apartment above La Villa Basque, one of Vernon’s few restaurants.
Candidates have raised concerns about two people who are registered at addresses that do not exist. A “street index” published by the Los Angeles County Registrar this week shows about 30 occupied residences in the city.
Until the recent series of scandals, being a Vernon councilman was one of the most lucrative part-time jobs in local government.
Council members made nearly $70,000 a year and received generous healthcare benefits. They lived in city-owned homes at subsidized rates and traveled across the country for seminars and business meetings.
The reforms have included salary cuts for the council members — which will drop to $25,000 at the end of their current terms —along with increased rents and term limits. But even with the new austerity at City Hall, it’s still a sought-after position.
The race itself is essentially a contest between two factions. The first, led by Ybarra and the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, consists of businesspeople and a group of longtime residents who helped defend the city from disincorporation last year but remain critical of some city leaders. They cite Vernon’s financial struggles and compensation received by administrators as evidence that council members failed to properly monitor city business.
On the other side is incumbent Daniel Newmire, a retired firefighter who was appointed to the Vernon council in 2009. He is supported by a fellow council member, Richard Maisano, who joined the council the same year. Acquaintances of both men have moved into city-owned properties in recent years, including athletes on sports teams Newmire coached and employees at a Manhattan Beach carwash run by Maisano.
It remains unclear exactly how many residents have connections with city leaders. Last year, city officials said roughly half of Vernon’s registered voters had direct ties to City Hall. The Times found that these included the nephews of the city administrator and relatives of several City Council members.
In February, Newmire and Ybarra participated in the “first-ever” Vernon candidates’ forum, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. About 15 residents showed up, the chamber president said.
Both candidates said traditional campaign strategies don’t work in Vernon because of the city’s unusual makeup and small size. Their outreach efforts have included short, one-page letters distributed to residents and brief chats with neighbors.
Ybarra said he keeps the conversations to less than 10 minutes, and tries not to press the flesh too hard. A soft sell seems to work best.
“People in Vernon like their privacy,” said Ybarra, whose father, Thomas, served on the City Council for more than four decades.
Newmire said he’s welcomed neighbors into his home over the years for taco nights and barbecues. In his letter, he invited voters to stop by his garage to talk about the city “or just to get to know Dan.”
The candidates have been friendly to each other so far. Both say they support the recent reforms and are against a proposed parcel tax. “Ybarra’s a nice guy,” Newmire said. “I told him I wish we could both serve.”
But Newmire said he’s angry with the city’s investigation, which he believes could intimidate voters. He also said he had been unfairly characterized by the chamber as part of the “old guard” linked to Vernon’s past scandals. “Maisano and I have been here 2 1/2 years, how could we be the old guard?” he said.
Another election for a vacant seat on the council is scheduled for the start of June. That race pits Luz Martinez, a former secretary at the Vernon Fire Department, against Reno Bellamy, a friend of Newmire who moved to Vernon in 2010.
Martinez did not respond to a request for comment. But Bellamy, an employee in the city of Corona, said the campaign so far has been an odd experience.
“It’s a weird election, because it’s so small and every vote is so valuable,” he said. “There’s a lot of tension in the community, and a lot of rumors are flying around.”
One benefit of the small electorate, city officials said, is that the votes can be counted quickly. On Tuesday evening after the polls close, ballots will be certified and counted by hand. The process is expected to take less than an hour.