Vernon: A City of Change, or a City of Shame?

The state's smallest city is searching for its identity.

Upon crossing Alameda Street, drivers passing through Southeast Los Angeles will find themselves in Vernon, the state's smallest incorporated city.

This tiny town's motto, "Exclusively Industrial," captures what it's like to cruise through its streets. Full of semi-trucks expelling thick, black exhaust, there seem to be more commercial trucks on the road than cars. Factories are closely packed together within the city's tight boundaries, which encapsulate only about five square miles.

Big industries like fashion designer True Religion, Bon Apetit Bakery and Simply Fresh Fruit are headquartered in Vernon. Despite having only 112 residents in the 2010 census, the city is as full of character as it is discarded trash on the side of its roads. It's also wrought with a history of city-wide political scandal.

That tarnished image led former State Assembly Speaker John Pérez to introduce Assembly Bill 46 in 2010, which proposed legislation to disincorporate California cities with less than 150 residents, a move that clearly targeted Vernon, which would have become an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County.

Ultimately, AB 46 died in the Senate, and Vernon has since been in the process of reshaping and revitalizing its image, promising to add more amenities and housing for city employees. These efforts led to a glaring question: Are the renewed efforts the result of a sense of city pride, or is the city government simply going through the motions to resurrect the city's good name?

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There is no question it will be a tough rebound. The city suffers from a past so tarnished that it inspired a fictional version: The corrupt town of "Vinci" in HBO's second season of "True Detective."

Flashback to 2006, when then-Mayor Leonis Malburg, the grandson of the founder of Vernon, was charged with voter fraud, false registration and perjury, among other infractions. Malburg's mayoral tenure lasted for 50 years, even amidst controversy concerning his place of residence. Despite claiming that he lived in Vernon, he actually lived with his family in the more upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park.

Bruce Malkenhorst, Sr., the then-city administrator, was charged with misappropriation of public funds for personal use. He also had an annual salary of $510,000 and current annual pension of almost $500,000, the highest of any retired California government official. The California Public Employees' Retirement System recently approved a decision to recover more than $3.4 million back from Malkenhorst. He retired in July 2005, just as the scandal started to erupt.

Reporters with the Los Angeles Times found that "persuading" Vernon residents to continue to elect the same officials was not an uncommon practice. Anyone who tried to run against the incumbents from 1980 to 2006 was stopped — either evicted from their homes or had their voter registration canceled. About a decade ago, LA Times reporters began investigating Vernon's high-level government officials on allegations of corruption. Kim Christensen, one of those reporters who began his investigation in 2010, had experience with this firsthand.

Eric Fresch, who worked for the City of Vernon from 2003 to 2009 in various positions, got mixed up in the scandal and eventually committed suicide in 2012. Christensen met Carl Algee, a security guard and Fresch's chauffeur, who was eager to share his boss's story. Christensen referred to Fresch as his "most interesting character."

Fresch made $1.5 million per year, reporting an extra 40 to 60 hours to the city payroll each week. Public files showed he worked about 15 hours per day for roughly 363 days a year during his years as a city employee— in what was a "clearly questionable if not outright criminal" record, said Christensen. Algee, who was fired from his position in 2007, told Christensen that he was given cheap rent in exchange for a clear promise that he would vote to reelect specific city officials.

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Christensen said this was true of most of the 90 residents who earned coveted spots in Vernon's few and far between housing units. In Christensen's 2010 article, "Vernon a tightly controlled fortress," he quoted Algee, who said "I pointed to one of their candidates and looked at her and [a city employee] nodded, yes, that one. … That's how it worked."

Christensen was ignored, hung up on and passed off from person to person when looking for sources. He said that reporting on the Vernon scandal — at the time — meant getting a lot of doors slammed in his face, but there was a big public appetite for information, particularly following the eerily similar City of Bell scandal, in which city officials misappropriated city funds. The Times reporters pushed forward.

In recent visits to Vernon City Hall, generations-old local businesses, and even apartments, there was a very different energy in the air. Residents, city officials and local employees shook hands, met one another's eyes with genuine respect, and welcomed each other's questions with clear transparency.

City Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra welcomed questions about Vernon's past and future with a clear passion for her city not only as a government leader, but as one of the very few lifetime residents.

Ybarra was born in Vernon, and her family has lived in the area since the 1800s — decades before the city was incorporated in 1905. She attended Vernon Elementary, and her children do today. Her family owns property within the city, but she rents from her residence. The local government has a history of owning almost all the city's public housing.

"I grew up with neighbors—not next door but down the street. I was able to play with friends. Then businesses came in and bought up property, and neighbors left and I was left to play with my sisters in the backyard," Ybarra recalled.

She hopes her grandchildren will be able to continue the generations-long legacy of residing here, but she understands that the Vernon of today is not the Vernon of the past, and likely not the Vernon of the future.

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"Going forward, it's change. We're adapting to change," Ybarra said with a smile. She even predicts change to one of the city's longest-standing traditions: a lack of parks.

"I foresee us getting a park—not a full park, maybe a pocket park," Ybarra said. "That will help businesses as well as residents. Some people may not want to go to McDonald's down the street and sit in their car and eat it on a hot day. They might like to sit in a park in the shade."

Ybarra mentioned that the City Council has been discussing the issue at length over the past year, and has conducted several studies to find the best location for a park. There's not much available land within the narrow boundaries, though.

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The city's motto presents an issue here. How can a self-described "exclusively industrial" city maintain its character while catering to a growing residential population? Although the town lacks many basic amenities like parks, pools and playgrounds, more than 55,000 people work in Vernon's industries every day. Its businesses contribute significantly to the LA County economy.

"Our main goal is to keep businesses here," Ybarra said. That doesn't mean, however, there won't be new residents moving into Vernon in the next few years. It's about finding the balance, she said.

The new Vernon City Park apartment complex welcomed about 150 low to very low income families and residents into a quiet corner of the city. One, two, and three-bedroom units were available, for prices ranging from $687 to $1,272 per month.

Vernon spokesman Fred MacFarlane estimated that similar units in the Westside in Los Angeles would likely start at around $2,000.

The stretch of crisp white units bears a striking resemblance to upscale town homes and touts amenities like a communal courtyard with playground equipment, a community garden, a computer room, a gas barbecue, meeting rooms, a large communal kitchen, and more.

Teresa Cianes moved in with her family over the summer when the complex opened. She felt lucky to get one of the coveted spots through the lottery system.

"My favorite part is it's quiet, the people are very nice. It's beautiful. There were a lot of problems with neighbors where I used to live in El Monte," Cianes said.

Here, Cianes can play with her young grandson on the playground without having to worry about her family's safety. There is also a police substation in the complex.

"One of the knocks against Vernon was [that] the city owned all the housing and could essentially pick who could or couldn't be there and controlled its own electorate," said Fred MacFarlane, a Vernon spokesman. "With all these new Vernon families there will be an expansion of the city's electorate."

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Despite the city's unsavory past, new city officials seem to be making a hard push toward getting it back in shape. Ybarra's father, grandfather, and uncle, among other family members, all held Vernon City Council seats at one time in their careers. Ybarra became active in the local city government around the time that AB 46 threatened to disincorporate the city, and she stepped up to City Council after her father passed away last year.

"We're more transparent—we said look, we're going to fix this, we don't want to lose our city. It's my home. I have a lot of heart in it," Ybarra said.

Driving through the city, it's hard to ignore a street sign that still bears the name of a former Vernon leader: Leonis Boulevard. But that's not who Vernon is now, Ybarra said. The new Vernon is a collection of the generations-old businesses and a swarm of eager new residents.

"You have the coffee smell, the bakery smell, the Chinese food smell, the Farmer John [meat packing] smell, but it just smells like home," Ybarra said.

It may start smelling like home to a few more people soon.

Reach Staff Reporter Alex Janin here; follow her on Twitter here.