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On the fall of the mighty

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Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Bell. And now Vernon. Corrupt and autocratic régimes continue to topple, some in the face of popular pressure; some because their internal contradictions have grown too great.

And as we have seen in Libya, régime change can be ugly.

Regrettably, the oligarchs of Vernon - hobbled in recent years by a series of grand jury investigations and criminal convictions - have taken Libya as their model. They've unleashed the city's mercenaries - its fire fighters, among others - not to break heads but to plead in slick print and video advertising that Vernon is city just like yours - like yours if your city has only 81 registered voters all of whom work for the city and live in city-owned housing.

Mayor Hilario Gonzales recently offered his view of Vernon's situation: "We have done nothing wrong. Like any other thing, you may have ... bad apples. But that is not the city's fault. Those are individuals, and the individual things that they do."

Vernon's "bad apples" have been around for a very long time, back even to the founding of the city in 1905 as an enclave of pig farms and slaughterhouses on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. By the 1940s, Vernon had recast itself a home for industries that Los Angeles would otherwise have zoned out of that city's core. By then, collusion among Vernon's "bad apples" had gotten very rank.

In 1943, the county grand jury indicted six Vernon officials on charges of voter fraud. Four were convicted. In 1978, Vernon Mayor Leonis Malburg was indicted along with the City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst on charges of voter fraud, perjury, extortion and bribery. The charges were dismissed. In 2006, the grand jury indictments were handed down against Malburg (still serving as mayor), the Vernon city administrator, and other officials. The charges again included voter fraud. Convicted, Malburg was ordered to pay more than $500,000 in fines and reimbursements.

(Brian Doherty tells more of the Vernon story here.)

From the start, Vernon existed to shield unappealing businesses - the Farmer John slaughterhouse, for one - from meddling. Vernon's existence now depends on Sacramento politics. Assembly Bill 46, introduced by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, would disincorporate Vernon and wrap up a long history of malfeasance. Last year, Perez wrote to the Los Angeles Times saying that "Vernon operates like a racket benefiting a few wealthy families with no independent electorate."

Pérez has made Vernon's disincorporation personal. In an unusual display, Perez himself is working the lobbies and offices of the state capitol to develop support. But even with the Speaker's backing, this bill faces a troubled future. According to the Times:

The bill is expected to foment one of the bigger legislative fights in Sacramento this year as the industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles, buoyed by a tax base of about 1,800 businesses, has hired a cadre of blue-chip lobbyists to fight for its existence.

Pérez said it's "appalling" that the city is using public funds to pay lobbyists to fight AB 46. He said that he received support to dissolve the city on a recent flight to Sacramento.

"The guy sitting in front of me is a businessman from Vernon. He turns around and says, 'Mr. Speaker, we love you,'" Perez recounted Tuesday. "He likes me getting rid of the corruption."

The hubris in that claim suggests that a messy end to Vernon - like Libya's incipient civil war - may not end in with the triumph of democracy but with something else.

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 every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Laurie Avocado. It is used under a Creative Commons License.