Learning from Vernon

Lessons Lessons Lessons

Disasters are highly educational, but it's not clear if the instruction offered by the disaster that is Vernon will be of any use, either to cities or the democratic process.

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In the opinion of the Los Angeles Times, ". . . Vernon is a place that makes people seethe over the injustice of it all. But as long as its leaders aren't breaking the law, its problems are its own. (And when its leaders do break the law, as they have multiple times, we have prosecutors to deal with that.)"

Lessons learned: Local sovereignty, although under continual attack by state legislative mandates, is sacrosanct when it serves to protect deals with corporate interests. (Los Angeles and AEG will take note of that one.) And the final arbiters of municipal legitimacy are the district attorney and the county grand jury - both of which investigated Vernon's crooked heart for more than 70 years. (Every dicey city in the county may breathe a little easier, knowing how toothless the DA and the grand jury have been in restraining Vernon's excesses.)

The Times suggests that the Vernon régime and its enablers might reform the city's corrupt practices themselves, if only because looting the city is no longer so easy: "Ultimately, the real catalyst for change could be Vernon's own unchecked spending: Problematic investments have landed the city in fiscal trouble, and the Internal Revenue Service is auditing the issuance of more than $400 million in bonds. Business leaders who once bragged about the city being in the black -- as if that were the only virtue municipal leaders were re required to model -- might rethink their support for a City Hall where almost anything goes."

Lessons learned: The 50 or so voters in Vernon are powerless, essentially locked out of the discussion of what kind of city they should live in. The only players who have anything meaningful to say are the five men of the city council and the corporate heads who depend on Vernon's cover of cityhood for continued profitability. (Cities with unusually cozy relationships with business interests will find that a happy theory of the democratic process.)

As the Times notes with genuine approval, efforts to disincorporate Vernon failed badly in the state Senate. A coalition of politically ambitious legislators, anxious union leaders, and Vernon's corporate clients -- backed by a reported $5-million lobbying campaign -- persuaded enough senators that maintaining the purity of cityhood required Vernon's continued existence.

Lessons learned: Cityhood is what the state legislature says it is, and $5 million is the current price to buy you whatever definition you want. (I'm waiting for a casino to incorporate some tiny slice of desert, with croupiers as the only voters.) Also, all corrupt cities are equal, but some are more equal than others. (Poor Bell had the bad luck to be corrupt in one commonplace way. But Vernon has supporters who need it to be corrupt in particular ways.) To preserve those benefits, state Senator Kevin de Leon personally crafted a set of mock reforms - wistfully cheered by the Times - that the Vernon City Council adopted with far too much eagerness. (Who needs voters or even the entire state Legislature to shape genuine reform? The fiat of one Senator is more than right for feudal Vernon.)

Sadly, pious hopes for Vernon's "new direction" under Senator de Leon's thumb are laughable.

For example, making Vernon a real city by growing its voting population to 100 under an independent housing commission requires the commission to weed out city council cronies, friends of friends, and political adventurers. Can Vernon be made democratic by imposing an anti-democratic political test on future residents? Will the commission turn away housing applicants who can't vote? Since the commission will essentially control elections, the commission inevitably will be corrupted.

Vernon's continued existence remains a paradox. A city that is not a city survives because its corruptions are so necessary. Undemocratic principles are welcomed so that Vernon can appear to be more democratic. The ideal of local sovereignty is upheld here but under attack everywhere else.

Take what lessons can from that.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from a public domain source.

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