Vernon's Fate will Haunt the Future of Los Angeles

Power Domes

Vernon has been so corrupt for so long that, were it not for the gross malfeasance of Bell city officials, Vernon would be the dictionary definition of a city without legitimacy.

And if Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez had his way, Vernon would be disincorporated today. Why it's not says a lot about the egos and interests that drive legislative politics and the increasingly strained relationship between California's cities and state government.

Vernon's backstory - suspected murder, stolen money, stolen elections, and a nearly feudal régime at city hall - has been the subject of grand jury and district attorney investigations since the 1920s.

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The city's singular defense was Vernon's legitimacy as a city.

Incorporation under the state's liberal definition of cityhood gave Vernon a veil of sovereignty. And Vernon's persistence as a phantom city depended simply on following the forms of democratic governance. If the city council went through the motions of council meetings and council elections, Vernon was safe.

Stripping Vernon of sovereignty turns on the question of determining what Vernon has become. Precedent has left that question to voters rather than the state. Voters have a limited ability to redefine their city government in each election cycle. Recall can wipe out an entire city council and put the reformers in power. But what happens, as in Vernon, when the electoral process is powerless to achieve reform?

When does the state go behind the veil of sovereignty to judge a city's continuing legitimacy? And should it?

Speaker Pérez hasn't offered a theory of disincorporation that deals with these fundamental issues, preferring to see this as a political contest between his legislative power and Vernon's well-paid lobbyists. But Pérez is finding some problems in his display of clout.

Vernon has lined up its public safety employees, the big businesses that benefit from cozy relationships with the city, and the industrial unions whose workers staff those businesses. Millions of dollars are being spent to keep Vernon a city.

In recent days, the Board of Supervisors has questioned the cost to the county of disincorporation (even though borard members were early supporters). State Senator Lou Correa and Senator Kevin De Leon, whose district includes Vernon, also supported Pérez's disincorporation bill when it sailed through the Assembly. They have disavowed it now that's it come before the Senate. Both claim to see disincorporation as a threat to jobs and businesses. (The threat to their political interests is left unsaid.)

And cities see forced disincorporation as an existential threat.

California's cities have come and gone since statehood in 1850, but only when their residents chose to incorporate or disincorporate. Los Angeles, for example, consumed whole cities in the early years of the 20th century because Los Angeles persuaded majorities of voters to disincorporate their city.

The move to disincorporate Vernon is different. It represents an extension of state power that has been, up to now, less nakedly applied.

California's cities have been drained of "home rule" authority since Prop. 13 transferred property tax decisions from city councils to the state legislature in 1978. As always, those who have the money make the rules, many of them focused on taking even more municipal revenue. Cities have fought back in a limited way, but they are, by legal definition, "creatures of the state." In the end, cities do what the state tells them to do.

Legislative disincorporation has always been an abstract power of the state. But once actually used, latent power always becomes part of the political game. A mechanism that can convene a kangaroo court on cityhood whenever an Assembly speaker seeks political advantage essentially strips cities of what little sovereignty they have left.

Just the threat of disincorporation makes cities - even big cities like Los Angeles - more servile and less governable by their own electorate.

Vile Vernon is fighting for its miserable life with every dollar it has. If it survives, Vernon will continue to be a symbol of municipal illegitimacy, but cities throughout California may be more free. If Vernon goes down, every troubled city is next in line.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes weekly about Los Angeles on KCET's 1st & Spring blog.

The images on this page were taken by flickr users JoeInSouthernCA and How I See Life. They are used under a Creative Commons License.

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