What Is the Point of Vernon?

Towering Failure
Towering Failure | Photo: Photo: lavocado/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The recent state auditor's report on Vernon's historically corrupt and corrupting government comes to the conclusion that Vernon has become a zombie city: leaderless, stumbling, hungry, and apparently uncontrollable. After ten months of investigation -- conducted as part of a deal to stall disincorporation -- the state auditor described Vernon as a hapless municipality with scant financial controls and little understanding of its millions of dollars in contracts, teetering on the brink of financial chaos, and essentially ungoverned.

The auditor urged that Mark Whitworth, the city's current administrator and formerly Vernon's fire chief, be replaced with an expanded team of experienced administrators with no previous ties to Vernon. Except for John Van de Kamp, Vernon's counselor and former District Attorney and state Attorney General, everyone thinks that Whitworth is in far over his head.

In the auditor's report, Eric T. Fresch, a former city administrator, is singled out for leading Vernon into, among other disasters, a losing bet on natural gas that now costs the city $30 million a year. In his years in Vernon, Fresch had worn several hats at City Hall: administrator, city attorney, public safety worker, and lately consultant. All the hats paid well, at least $1.8 million in 2008 alone.

As the auditor was making this known to the legislature on June 28, Fresch was found dead in Northern California. The circumstances of his death remain murky, as does much of Vernon's past and present.

The audit report focuses on Vernon's dubious financial arrangements and unmonitored contracts, but those are just symptoms of the city's disorder, which arises from Vernon's largely successful effort to be a city without any citizens. Vernon has about 90 eligible voters and nearly all of them live in city-owned housing. Most of them work for the city, too, in a sort of civic serfdom. Naturally, the serfs know their place. Vernon went decades without a contested election while its city council aged, grew more arrogant, and became notably indifferent to the public good.

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But these were only symptoms themselves. Vernon's status as an incorporated municipality -- a shield that serves other enclaves -- was made possible by a century of collusion with the Los Angeles Times, the District Attorney's office, the former Merchants and Manufacturers Association, and other business interests. From 1900 on, they saw Los Angeles as a pristine city of homes and white-collar businesses where undesirable activities -- slaughter houses, tanneries, foundries, fish canneries -- were zoned into industrial areas.

It was the genius of these visionaries to see that a lot of money could be made by turning industrial areas into cities themselves, cities with small populations and minimal public services. Vernon is not alone; it's just the example that puts a thumb in your eye.

I don't see how anyone can "reform" the history of Vernon out of the city or ever de-zombify it. By all accounts, it would take years -- perhaps decades -- to expand the population of Vernon to something like an authentic electorate. Vernon remains as industrial as the city's oligarchs intended. It's not the sort of place one would willingly move. And if the industries moved, as some threaten to do, their former plants would instantly become toxic "superfund" sites.

What's the point of Vernon, except as a dodge to avoid business operating costs? You can give the zombie a new outfit. You can clean the zombie up. You can -- if the mythos is right -- even teach the zombie a few new tricks. But it's always going to be one of the cursed undead. And Vernon is always going to be a zombie city.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focusblog.

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