When you are hog butcher for the world, you become Chicago. When you make bacon and sausages for Southern California, you face a rather different fate.
Assembly Speaker John Perez introduced last month AB 46, a bill that would take the singular action of forcing the disincorporation of a city that many consider noxious in more ways than one: the Los Angeles County city of Vernon.
For over 100 years Vernon has operated more as an industrial park than a traditional city, and city leaders have vowed to fight -- and even sue -- to maintain cityhood and its distinctive business environment.
Vernon's 1,800 or so businesses employ over 50,000 workers in factories, warehouses, food processing plants, and, perhaps most pungently, a Farmer John meat packing plant. Amid this industrial landscape live scarcely more than 90 citizens, who live in a handful of apartments, mostly owned by the city, among the railroad tracks and factories. They comprise Vernon's entire electorate, and as the landlord the city can determine who they are.
"It's nothing we would recognize as a city government, providing basic services to thousands of people," said Raphael Sonenshein, a scholar of Los Angeles-area policy and chair of the Cal State Fullerton Department of Political Science. "Basically it's kind of a holding company for the local businesses."
The 5-square mile city has faced vicious criticism over the decades, and especially over the past few years, for operating more as a fiefdom for a small number of public officials than as anything resembling a democratic entity. Charges of corruption, nepotism, election-tampering, and other forms of malfeasance have abounded, and city officials are currently facing indictment. In introducing AB 46 Speaker Perez has indicated that the city is inherently beyond reform.
"In any other city in California, this situation would be met with outrage by voters," said Shannon Murphy, spokesperson for Speaker Perez. "But Vernon is unlike any other city. Every resident lives in city-owned housing, so you don't really have an independent electorate."
AB 46 would force the disincorporation of "all cities with a population of less than 150 residents," according to the text of the bill. The text goes on to acknowledge that the legislation would affect only the City of Vernon. If AB 46 passes, the city will be absorbed as an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County. The bill provides that the county board of supervisors may keep the city incorporated if they so choose.
AB 46 has received support from over 90 co-sponsors in the Legislature and a raft of civic entities, including the city councils of neighboring cities and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The Los Angeles City Council voted 12-0 to support the bill. Several unions and business groups associated with Vernon oppose the bill.
Murphy maintained that AB 46 had precedent in the past disincorporation of at least two California cities since the creation of the Local Agency Formation Commission system of incorporation in the 1960s. However, this would be the first time that the Legislature has forcibly disincorporated a city that could be considered a going concern. In the 1972 residents of the City of Cabazon approved their own disincorporation, and in 1973 Hornitos was disbanded by statute mainly because the Mariposa County hamlet had turned into a ghost town.
"The Vernon bill is entirely separate from that and completely different because it's imposing a forcible dissolution...presumably against the will of the city leaders and some business owners in the city of Vernon," said Paul A. Novak, executive officer of the Los Angeles County LAFCO.
Thus, this would be the boldest such move in recent memory, and the first disincorporation of any kind since the 2000 update of the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act, which governs incorporation of cities and special districts throughout the state.
Vernon city leaders deny that such extreme measures are warranted.
Fred MacFarlane, public information officer for the City of Vernon, said that city leaders are pursuing a variety of reform measures. They include the establishment of an independent housing authority and other measures to ensure that Vernon government is sufficiently transparent. Former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp is leading a study of ethics reforms that can be implemented if the city remains intact.
A recent report commissioned by the city contends that Vernon businesses pay out over $4.5 billion in annual wages and hundreds of millions in state and local tax revenue. The report suggests that--because of anticipated changes that county supervisors would impose--the passage of AB 46 would result in the loss of over 11,000 of those jobs and $420 million in wages.
"The businesses in Vernon look to the city to provide a structure to enable them to be competitive and profitable," said MacFarlane. MacFarlane pointed to the city's Class I fire department, which, he said, provides a level of service rivaled by only a few dozen other departments across the country.
He said that Vernon businesses enjoy lower insurance rates because of the safety that the fire department provides. Similarly, Vernon's city-owned utility provides energy at a lower rate than do utilities in surrounding areas. If these, and other, industry-friendly amenities were to disappear, MacFarlane said that businesses would be harmed.
Others say that Vernon's business climate does not justify what they consider to be an undemocratic political structure. "We have many businesses in the County of Los Angeles and they can carry out their businesses and so on and still do it under a democratic government," said County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district encompasses Vernon.
Vernon city leaders, in conjunction with many Vernon-based businesses, are not relying only on economic arguments to combat AB 46.
MacFarlane said that city leaders consider AB 46 illegal because Vernon is a charter city and therefore entitled to self-rule under the state constitution.
"There is no provision in the state constitution that provides the state of California with the authority or the power to disincorporate a charter city," said MacFarlane. "That's not an implied power. Charter cities can be disincorporated, but they are disincorporated by a vote of the electors of the incorporated city." He added that the primary motivation for disincorporation is to treat Vernon "like an ATM" and transfer city revenues to county coffers.
Bill Chiat, executive director of the California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions, said, however, that the law does not either expressly provide for, or forbid, the disincorporation of a charter city.
"The provisions in LAFCO law (Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg) for disincorporation do not differentiate between general law or charter city," said Chait. "However, LAFCO provisions do not provide for a forced disincorporation as called for in AB 46."
"Our local government policy experts and attorneys who deal with the constitutionality of bills on a daily basis are convinced state and federal precedent supports our position," said Murphy, speaking on behalf of Perez. "The fact is they are desperate to keep their corrupt status quo."
What will happen if and when AB 46 forces a change of status quo remains somewhat unclear. Most immediately, the city would come under county control 60 days after the passage of the bill. Thereafter, it could remain as a part of unincorporated county, or it could be annexed by any of the four cities that adjoin it.
"One could logically anticipate that one of the adjoining cities might then come in and apply to annex that area," said Novak. Novak added, however, that the annexation process would likely involve lengthy studies and a host of bureaucratic hurdles. The most imposing of those hurdles is that a vote of more than 25 percent of residents and/or landowners can block an annexation.
That issue may, however, never arise if neither Maywood, nor Commerce, nor Los Angeles decide that they want to absorb a greasy place with a tarnished past. In fact, although the Los Angeles City Council issued strong support for AB 46, it looks unlikely that the city would make a play for Vernon any time in the foreseeable future.
"I really feel that Los Angeles has its hands full keeping its own house in order," said Los Angeles City Council Member Jan Perry, whose council district is one of three that border Vernon. "At this point I'm not even willing to consider the exploration of annexation."
"The initial talk of LA trying to get an annexation seems to have gone away, which probably is wise," said Sonenshein. "My guess is that it would pollute the discussion in ways that might be unproductive."
Though Vernon businesses fear that the county would strip them of amenities and their favorable business environment, supporters of disincorporation insist that little would change in the city.
"Our bill is going to address some of the issues in terms of permitting, in terms of grandfathering in these businesses so they can continue to operate efficiently," said Murphy.
Molina, the county supervisor, said that the county does not intend to dismantle the city's business environment. She said that the utility would likely continue to operate and that other policies would change little.
"There are a lot of things that would probably stay in place for a long time," said Molina. "It shouldn't create any disruptions of services or any things of that sort. It wouldn't have any kind of civic government per se, but they could address their issues to the county."
Vernon's unique nature and history might even warrant innovations in governance that would satisfy businesses there without requiring that the city operate as a full independent entity.
"At some point the county might consider treating Vernon as some kind of enterprise zone, governed indirectly by the county through some commission that doesn't even pretend to be a local government," said Sonenshein.
Bill Chiat, Executive Director, Calfornia Association of LAFCos, http://www.calafco.org/ (916) 442-6536
Fred MacFarlane, Public Information Officer, City of Vernon, (323) 583-8811
Gloria Molina, Los Angeles County Supervisor, (213) 974-4111
Paul A. Novak, Executive Officer, Los Angeles County LAFCO, (818) 254-2454
Jan Perry, Los Angeles City Councilmember, (213) 473-7009
Raphael Sonenshein, Chair, Cal State Fullerton Political Science Department, (657) 278-3837