The City of Vernon (pop. 112) is in a fight to the death with Speaker John Perez, who is trying to end the city's long history of corruption by ending the city.
But while the status quo is indefensible, shutting down the city would likely have all sorts of adverse and unintended consequences for Vernon's industrial base.
So what should happen? Is there some middle ground between maintaining the status quo and dissolving a city that's been around since 1905?
Here are some ideas:
More Housing. If the fundamental problem in Vernon is that there aren't enough residents to keep the city honest, why not have more residents? The city could double its population by building a retirement home, and it could turn that over to an independent property management company to make sure the residents weren't handpicked by the powers that be.
The problem is that Vernon is not exactly an ideal place to live. It might be difficult to find an uncontaminated plot of land on which to build. For another thing, businesses would resist the addition of more residents because it would lead to more complaints about fumes and truck traffic and the like — which is what they came to Vernon to get away from.
A Special District. If you can't add more residents, why not let the businesses vote? Ralph Shaffer, an emeritus professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona, floated this idea in a post at Fox & Hounds. Vernon would be disincorporated and replaced by a “special district” that would provide police and fire services, run the utility, pave the streets, etc. Shaffer recommends allowing property owners, business owners, and even workers to vote in the board elections.
It sounds good in theory, but in practice it could be difficult to implement. Would all property owners be equal, or would their votes be weighted by the value of their properties? Would businesses be equal, or would their votes be weighted by the utility bills and taxes they pay? And what proportion of the vote would workers get? These details would be important and difficult to get right.
A Strike Force. Another option is to leave Vernon as it is, but require that its books be opened to spot inspection by a “strike force” of state or county auditors. This has an inherent appeal for business: it does not affect utility or tax rates. The trouble is that there's nothing illegal, in and of itself, about paying high salaries to administrators or consultants. So unless the auditors had the authority to reject contracts, then their power to curb corruption would be limited.
If the auditors could reject contracts, they would be acting more like receivers. And Vernon would probably argue that receivership would be an unwarranted encroachment on home rule, and take the issue to court.
A Payoff. Another way to look at the problem is from the perspective of Vernon's neighbors — Maywood, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, Bell and Commerce. For them, the problem isn't so much Vernon's corruption as it is that Vernon is hoarding a disproportionate share of the region's tax base. So why not force Vernon to share with its neighbors?
Vernon could set up some sort of fund for affordable housing projects, health clinics, and the like, which would be distributed annually to its neighbors. That would correct some of the inequity of the current set up, while not raising tax rates or power bills for Vernon businesses. It would also buy support. Of course, it wouldn't do a thing about corruption, other than leaving less money on the table for Vernon's leaders to take.
A Combination. The best solution may be a negotiated settlement that includes some combination of the above approaches. Whether that's an outcome the political process is capable of producing, however, is in serious doubt.
It's clear enough that the two extremes — disincorporation and the status quo — have major drawbacks. But no one seems to be negotiating, which means what's most likely to come out of this is an all-or-nothing result.