Does Vernon Deserve to Be a City?


In the wake of a new indictment of a Vernon city official, the tiny (pop. 90), corruption-prone city south of downtown L.A. is facing an attack from L.A. County D.A. (and Republican state Attorney General candidate) Steve Cooley on its very existence as a city.

The L.A. Times explains the problems Vernon is facing from authorities both local and state. Background: In 2006 the L.A. county D.A. tried to get a civil grand jury on board with a plan to legally disincorporate the city, but the jury thought it was a matter that only the state legislature could take up.

In documents obtained by The Times, including a report presented to the grand jury, prosecutors made the case that Vernon could never be allowed to incorporate as a city today because its structure is inherently undemocratic. The few residents are largely beholden to the city government because they either work for the city or live in city-owned housing, officials said. Contested elections are rare, prosecutors argued, and with little accountability from voters, public corruption has been allowed to fester at City Hall.

In the documents, prosecutors also argued that Vernon's status as a city essentially deprived the county and surrounding cities of taxes that could be used for schools, hospitals and other services.

Many of the latest questions have come on the heels of accounts in The Times of high pay and travel expenses for top Vernon officials, including first-class flights to New York and Ireland and thousand-dollar-a-night stays at luxury hotels including the Ritz-Carlton in New York.

Vernon has a long history of such outsider investigations into its business, which have not done much to derail city officials ability to maintain power and unusually highly paid positions:

Over the decades, Vernon has been a magnet for controversy, much of it involving allegations that its city fathers have gone to unlawful lengths to maintain power. In the 1940s, a county grand jury launched a corruption probe that resulted in the mayor and five other officials being indicted on charges of voter fraud.

Charges against the mayor, John Leonis, were dropped, but four other people, including the fire and police chiefs, were convicted. In 1978, Leonis' grandson, Leonis Malburg, was indicted along with the city clerk at the time, Bruce Malkenhorst, and a city attorney on charges of voter fraud, perjury, extortion and bribery. The charges were dismissed based on misuse of hearsay testimony during the grand jury proceeding, according to the district attorney's office.

In 2006, Malburg and Malkenhorst were again charged with public corruption. Malburg was convicted last year, and Malkenhorst awaits trial.

L.A. county prosecutors have suggested to the state a codified means of striking at Vernon, and analogous cities with tiny populations and corrupt governments:

The proposal allowed for disincorporation in cases in which a city had a history of malfeasance, defined as meeting two of a list of conditions including voter fraud, a high-ranking official convicted of public corruption, violations of the state's open-meetings law and abuse of public funds.

The process would call for prosecutors to send a report to the attorney general, who could then file a legal action with a Superior Court in the city's county. The court would ultimately rule on whether to disincorporate a city.

More L.A. Times background on the latest indictment of a Vernon official, in this case former city administrator Donal O'Callaghan, and on the state A.G.'s office issuing subpoenas in an investigation of Vernon officials' salaries, travel expenses, and pensions.

Past City of Angles blogging on the similarly corruption-tinged tiny city of Bell.

Image taken by Flickr user lavacado@sbcglobal.net. Used under user Creative Commons license.