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Vernon, Calif., Gets Reprieve

LOS ANGELES — Vernon, a corruption-plagued city in greater Los Angeles, received a second chance to clean up its act when the California Legislature rejected measures that would have disincorporated the city.

The two bills that failed Monday were introduced by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, earlier this year to end what he called decades of corruption.

The bills were approved by the Assembly, but were voted down 17 to 13 by the Senate on Monday.

“The Senate chose to ignore decades of corruption in Vernon,” Perez said in a statement.

Vernon, an industrial city with about 100 residents, though its employers claim more than 50,000 jobs, has been plagued by financial scandals. Three former Vernon officials have been convicted on corruption charges and the Internal Revenue Service is auditing more than $400 million of tax-exempt debt issued in 2009 by the city.

The combined effect of AB 46, and its companion bill, AB 781, would have disincorporated the city and handed over governance to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The bills introduced by Perez began to lose support last week after the county supervisors expressed opposition to any plan that would turn over Vernon and its $500 million in debt to them.

On the same day, Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, whose district includes Vernon, sent a seven-page letter to city leaders outlining a list of reforms he wanted the city to adopt to avoid being disincorporated.

Vernon held an emergency City Council meeting last Thursday and adopted the reforms.

De Leon spoke with the Assembly speaker before sending the letter to Vernon city leaders, according to Greg Hayes, a de Leon spokesman.

“The speaker was very skeptical about Vernon’s willingness to change,” Hayes said.

“He told Sen. de Leon that Vernon has had plenty of time to make changes and nothing has been happening,” he said.

Perez could not be reached for comment on whether he plans to reintroduce the bills in January.

 “Sens. [Ron] Calderon and de Leon, along with their colleagues, have given Vernon a free pass to continue doing business as usual, and those senators will own the responsibility for any misdeeds that may occur in the future,” Perez said in a statement.

Hayes said if Vernon fails to make changes before lawmakers reconvene in January, de Leon will not hesitate to back a bill to disincorporate the city.

“Our plan was not hugely sympathetic. Vernon has been a cesspool,” Hayes said. “They have some tough decisions to make.”

Hayes said de Leon told business leaders that reform should not be entirely on the shoulders of the city government.

“The senator told them, it’s up to you as well to stay involved and make sure the reforms are implemented,” Hayes said.

The reforms adopted by the city included appointing an independent monitor with the power to audit city finances and a housing commission to determine rental rates and leasing agreements.

The city must also adopt a new charter including term limits and salary caps for City Council members and establish a fund to mitigate the environmental concerns of surrounding cities.

Mark Whitworth, Vernon’s city administrator, said that city leaders are not concerned about the additional costs that could come from implementing the reforms.

“The city passed a budget that is balanced,” Whitworth said. “The city will move forward with fiscal responsibility in mind, but fully intending to implement the recommendations that were enacted for the de Leon plan.”

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