The first council member to get elected in a competitive race since the Nixon presidency in the small city of Vernon — population about 100 — has died.
Michael A. Ybarra, who was elected as a reform candidate in 2012, died Sept. 26 after a softball game in Lodi, near Sacramento, his wife, Susana Ybarra, said Tuesday. She said they were walking to their car after the game when “the next thing I knew he was on the ground. It was sudden.”
The 61-year-old Ybarra was elected the year after Vernon narrowly averted a disincorporation campaign launched by then Assembly speaker John Perez, who declared the southeastern Los Angeles County city a corrupt fiefdom. Vernon rarely held elections and almost all of the people who lived in Vernon’s sparse housing — tucked in an industrial landscape of about 1,800 businesses — had connections to people who worked for City Hall.
The city boasted some of the largest salaries for public officials in the state, if not the country, with some making almost $1 million a year — or more.
Ybarra was born and raised in the city and his family’s history in the area predates the incorporation of Vernon, going back to the 1860s. His late father, Thomas A. Ybarra, served on the City Council for 43 years.
“Our city mourns the loss of Council member Michael Ybarra, a dedicated public servant with deep roots in this community,” city administrator Mark Whitworth said in a statement. “Council member Ybarra worked diligently to keep Vernon on its good governance path.”
Susana Ybarra said her husband was relieved that Vernon was not legislated out of existence, but he was angered by what he discovered was going on in City Hall. He decided to run for office, and ended up winning by a handful of votes.
“He wanted to make sure everything was questioned and that everything was transparent,” his wife said. “He wanted to do the best he could. And I think he did.”
The city embarked on some efforts to change the way the city operated, including building additional apartments to create a larger population. For decades, Vernon’s tiny, pliant population of insiders had helped the city’s leadership maintain a tight grip and insular culture.
The city was a recurrent target of investigations, and in late 2009 Vernon’s ex-mayor Leonis Malburg — the grandson of one of the town’s founders — was convicted of voter fraud for lying about living in Vernon. (He lived in a mansion in Hancock Park).
A retired aerospace worker who served in the U.S. Army, Ybarra lived in Vernon his whole life. His wife said he was upset that he didn’t know more about what was going on in the city. While knocking on doors for the election, he came across homes where far more people were registered as living than actually lived there.
Ybarra is the second high-ranking Vernon official to die in the last two years. In July 2012, the former top official in the city, Eric T. Fresch, died after he fell while walking on wet rocks off Angel Island in the Bay Area, near his home in Tiburon. Coroner officials said he accidentally drowned. Fresch had been a controversial figure, at one point making more than $1.6 million a year to run the 5.2-square-mile city.
Fred McFarlane, a Vernon spokesman, said Ybarra’s service to the city will be remembered during a council session on Oct. 7.