Thursday, August 31, 2006

From Small Town To America's Largest Township

Size Doesn't Matter When It Comes To Entrenched Local Government

The New York Times reports on the political comings and goings of Vernon, CA, a town of some 91 residents where the Mayor has held office since the Eisenhower administration.

Heck. That's nothing! Contrast the venerable Town of Hempstead, where one party has held a lock on power since... well, since Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, and the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series.

Okay. At least we don't have any streets named "Mondello's Way" or "Kate Murray Boulevard" -- YET!

To Outsiders, a Town Seems a Cartel by Any Other Name


VERNON, Calif. — With 44,000 workers by day and 91 residents at night, Vernon is no ordinary small town. Its motto, “Exclusively Industrial,” says it all. This 5.2-square-mile city a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles is strictly for business, with a few homes dotted amid warehouses, factories and meatpacking plants.

Vernon has no movie theaters, parks or high schools. But despite its tiny population — or maybe because of it — it has not escaped accusations of small-town corruption. In April, Vernon held its first contested election in 26 years, and local leaders, would-be City Council members and state officials have been battling ever since.

Vernon officials have refused to count the ballots, saying they will await the outcome of litigation filed by City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst Jr. against three Council opposition candidates and their housemates over their right to run for office and to vote or even to live in Vernon.

The dispute has resulted in a number of lawsuits.

Judge David P. Yaffe of Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled against the town, saying it cannot invalidate the election. Another Superior Court judge, Aurelio Muñoz, said in court that Vernon was “run like a fiefdom,” and rejected its attempt to strip the opposition of their right to vote.

But lawyers for Mr. Malkenhorst, whose father retired as city administrator in 2004 with salary and perks of nearly $600,000 that year, say they will appeal.

The impasse has fueled debate over the ability of small towns to run their own elections. The California secretary of state, Bruce McPherson, has called on Vernon officials to count the votes, and Mr. McPherson supports a bill to strip the city of its power to administer elections for two years.

“This is an egregious abuse of the process,” Mr. McPherson said in a letter endorsing the bill, which would give Los Angeles County power to run Vernon’s next election. “Although this bill would not settle this issue for this election, it would ensure that future elections are conducted according to law.”

The fracas started in early January when a part-time bulk paper broker, Donald Huff, and a group of eight men and women moved into town, took up residence in an old building and registered to vote. Mr. Huff, 42, and two of his housemates filed to run for City Council, prompting city officials — according to Mr. Huff — to shut off their electricity and hire “armed thugs” to tail them.

By Jan. 26, the newcomers had been evicted because the city had declared their house a fire hazard.

City officials, in court papers, say Mr. Huff and his friends are puppets of Albert T. Robles, who as treasurer of nearby South Gate was convicted on corruption charges and is awaiting sentencing.

“I’ll live in my car if I have to,” Mr. Huff said. After spending weeks living in his S.U.V. in Vernon, he now sleeps on friends’ couches elsewhere, but said he had not given up his fight.

“I’m not going away,” he said. “They think they can chase me out of town, but they won’t.” Mr. Huff added, “The mayor doesn’t own this town.”

But he does own some of it.

Vernon business owners eat at La Villa Basque, owned by Mayor Leonis C. Malburg, who has been on the Council since the Eisenhower administration. The restaurant is next to the Leonis Malburg Building on Leonis Boulevard a few blocks from Malburg Way.

Mr. Malburg, the grandson of John B. Leonis, Vernon’s founding father, warmly greets lunch patrons at La Villa Basque, which has had the same décor and some of the same employees since it opened in 1960. But with outsiders, city officials seem guarded. When asked for comment after a recent City Council meeting, the mayor just smiled and walked away.

Silence, in fact, appears to be policy in Vernon. Other city officials said nothing when asked their names or if they would comment on the lawsuit and Judge Muñoz’s ruling. Phone calls requesting comment were not returned.

According to the Chamber of Commerce, 44,000 people commute to work in Vernon. The city owns nearly all the homes in Vernon, and most residents work for the city and pay cheap rent. Vernon has its own police, health, utilities and fire departments. Owners of many of the 1,200-plus businesses in town praise the city leaders for excellent services, low taxes and inexpensive utilities.

Although Judge Muñoz ruled against Vernon, he agreed with city officials that the newcomers were trying to gain power. He cited the youth and the lack of education and employment of most of them, but rejected the city’s attempt to cancel their voter registrations, saying in court that “power grabs aren’t illegal.”

Prof. Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said he had “never heard of a situation anywhere where votes had been cast and then a clerk makes a decision not to count the votes.”

“Vernon’s like the Wild West,” Professor Hasen said. “The idea that they can just lock up the ballots — not only does that violate election laws, but it’s outrageous.”

Several business leaders said those in control of Vernon did a good job. “What city doesn’t have some corruption?” said Todd Levin, president of Todd’s Incorporated, a packager of dried nuts and other snack food. “I’m not saying they’re corrupt. I just know I get a great deal here, and they’re great to work with.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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If Vernon, CA is like the Wild West, does that make New York's Town of Hempstead the Wild East? Anyone for lunch at Santino's?

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