An independent ethics advisor hired by the city of Vernon to vet its governing practices released a summary of his findings and recommendations in a 52-page report this week.
Former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and a team assembled to audit the city found “no significant fault” in Vernon’s compliance with the Political Reform Act, conflict of interest policies, the Brown Act, and the Public Records Act, according to the July 29 report.
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In the past few years, three former top city officials were convicted of crimes that include voter fraud, misappropriation of money, and violation of conflict of interest laws. The salaries of top officials in the city have also been criticized for being excessively high.
Van de Kamp makes several recommendations in his report including improving its housing policies and controlling contracts with consultants and law firms, but said that his recommendations for the city “should not be considered damning,” because “many of them are minor and could apply to other cities as well.”
In his report, Van de Kamp noted the many “good government measures” the city put into place in the past year were “stimulated” by public attention, as well as State Assembly Speaker John Perez’s bill to disincorporate the city. While “under pressure,” the city seemed willing to “tackle” reform measures, he wrote.
He avoids making judgments on whether Vernon should be dissolved. “Rather, this report deals with what improvements and modifications should and can be made under existing law to bring Vernon’s governance in alignment with the best practices in other California cities.”
Van de Kamp says his role is to be an “independent outside observer not as a paid promoter for the city.” He was retained by the city in February and was charging the city $500 an hour.
In addition to recommending better training and education for city employees and officials, Van de Kamp recommended the city hire a sufficiently trained city clerk and an experienced city attorney as soon as it ends its hiring freeze. Both of these positions, as well as several others, are vacant or are being filled by temporary staff.
Since Van de Kamp began reviewing the city’s practices, the city has moved ahead with some changes including decreasing city council salaries, currently $68,052 a year, by 18 percent effective July 31. The city council voted to cap their compensation at $24,996 beginning with their next term.
In his report, Van de Kamp recommended the city go back to staggered city council terms, in which elections are held every two years, with two to three seats opening up at a time. Currently an election is set for once a year, with one city council seat opening up each time.
Van de Kamp also found problems in the cities’ handling of contracts and recommended Vernon officials negotiate for better fee rates, avoid “evergreen” contracts by including termination dates, and to not allow fees to go up during the term of a contract.
In particular, Van de Kamp’s report notes that the city’s legal fees have been high compared to those of other cities: “It does not appear from the review of the professional services contracts or conversations with City staff that the City is soliciting reduced rates that other cities are receiving. An example of a contract that appears to include rates normally charged to private clients is the contract with Latham & Watkins… Because of the uniqueness of the issues facing the City of Vernon and the necessity to make decisions quickly, these negotiations might not have been possible. But in the long term, City staff should be instructed to negotiate with firms, especially law firms, for lower compensation rates or fees whenever possible.”
The report also detailed the team’s findings regarding the city’s housing policies. The city owns almost all the homes in Vernon and has been accused of favoring friends and family when accepting residents.
Perez’s bill, which has already passed in the Assembly and is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate, as well as actions promoted by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, target Vernon residents’ ability to vote independently, among the reasons why the city should be disbanded.
Officially the city council has final authority in choosing who can live in the homes, but Van de Kamp says he was unable to determine through interviews what policy and process the city used for approving new residents, and who actually made decisions to approve leases for new tenants.
According to Van de Kamp’s findings, the Vernon population consists of 112 residents living in 29 housing units. Four of those units are owner occupied; the rest are rentals.
Of the city’s 62 registered voters, 25 have “direct connections” to the city. In particular, five are city employees, six are relatives of city employees and one is related to a consultant.
He found that some of the Vernon residents include four relatives of Fire Chief and City Administrator Mark Whitworth, two of whom are registered to vote.
The city council moved ahead Tuesday on Van de Kamp recommendation to make appointments “as soon as possible” to a new seven-person housing commission so that it can “quickly formulate housing policies.” Their first meeting is next Thursday.
The commission will consist of two residents, one councilmember, three representatives of the business or property owners’ community, and one employee of a Vernon business appointed by the mayor and ratified by the city council.
Van de Kamp also recommended that rents be set on a market basis, and policies be set to avoid “favoritism to City personnel and their relatives and friends.” Rental rates for city-owned apartments are currently set at $120 a month for 1 bedroom, $240 a month for 2 bedrooms, and $360 a month for 3 bedrooms.
Van de Kamp said he was surprised to learn that while the business community enjoyed the general services provided by the city, they feel they have “little influence or relationship with its City Council.”
He recommended the city work more closely not only with its own business community, but also with other cities, including neighboring cities, in Southern California.
Van De Kamp writes that “more needs to be done” to improve the city’s governing practices, and that the implementation of reforms are still “works in progress.” In particular, “timely and effective action needs to be taken” on housing issues, he said.