The battle for the future of Vernon has taken taken a dramatic turn this week. Assembly Speaker John Pérez is back on his heels, and it looks at the moment as though Vernon is likely to survive his concerted effort to wipe it off the map.
First, it's important because of what it reveals about the character of Speaker John Pérez. He's one of the most powerful men in the state. As the leader of the Assembly, he governs all of us. This episode has shown that he's in way over his head.
Professional policy-making is about crafting difficult solutions to difficult problems. Vernon poses a difficult problem. But instead of engaging with the complexity of the issue, Pérez reached for the easiest solution he could think of: Shut it down.
That is a radical impulse. It's the right approach for a union leader, which Pérez once was, but not for a policy-maker. When even his allies in labor tried to coax him toward a less rash approach, he dug in his heels. He has relied on the tools of power politics, rather than engage in a reasoned debate with critics. In so doing, he has failed to display the intellectual discipline required for serious policy-making.
Second, Vernon itself is important as a cautionary example. Civic engagement is hard and tedious and unglamorous. But when people stop doing it, bad things happen. Vernon's leaders enriched themselves for decades because no one was looking over their shoulders.
Speaker Pérez at least deserves credit for engaging with an issue his predecessors have mostly ignored. But what is required is more than easy outrage and pat solutions. The situation calls for sustained and measured attention.
In other words, old-fashioned, boring civic responsibility. Vernon is an extreme example of what can happen when civic
responsibility breaks down. But that breakdown is not limited to Vernon.
Third, and finally, there is a lesson in civic engagement for the business community. Business owes a duty to the broader community, and not just to stockholders. Again, that sounds old-fashioned — if not downright naive — but Vernon illustrates what happens when that sort of civic spirit is absent.
One of the main reasons businesses come to Vernon is that there is no community there to be responsible to. There are no Little League teams or Rotary Clubs asking for donations. There are no residents, which means there are no swimming pools or playgrounds and thus no need for taxes to pay for those things. The captains of Vernon industry felt free to make money and then go home, leaving politics to the politicians.
For the longest time, about the only person paying attention was Steve Freed, president of the Vernon Property Owners Association. He was blowing the whistle while the rest of the business community slept. That's not enough. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce awakened to the need for reform when Pérez directly threatened their bottom line. But if Pérez goes away, they need to stay engaged.
Again, it sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, but business has to recognize it does not live in a vacuum. It needs good government to pave the streets and put out fires and pick up the trash. It also needs government regulation and government services for its employees and customers. And so it has to pay attention.