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Vernon Making Progress on Planned Reforms, Says Independent Monitor

In a recent report, Vernon’s independent reform monitor acknowledged that the industrial city has taken steps to change the “face” of Vernon by working toward meeting many of the recommendations made by Sen. Kevin De Leon after the city was nearly disincorporated in 2011 amid accusations of wrong doing by some city officials.

Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: El Informe Semestral de Vernon Aborda el Presupuesto, el Medioambiente y las Viviendas [1]

Former State Attorney General John Van De Kamp presented his findings at the March 19 City Council meeting. He pointed out that Vernon must still address concerns over its large budget deficit, housing reforms and its relationship with surrounding communities in order to continue to implement the good governance reforms. The reforms demanded following revelations that the city had paid exorbitant salaries to some former city officials, and accusations that the city, with only about 100 residents, was run like a fiefdom by a handful of individuals.

“The biggest problem [the city] faces now is getting their budget into balance,” Van De Kamp told EGP.

He told the council that the city must put its financial house in order, but acknowledged that some actions taken by the council are moving the city in that direction. According to the report, Vernon had a $12 million General Fund deficit in July 2012.

During the 2012-2013-budget year, the city made strides toward reducing the deficit by cutting the budget 11percent, selling 500 acre-feet of the city’s water rights to Norwalk’s Municipal Water system for $6 million and increasing a special parcel tax. They also approved an electric rate adjustment and an early retirement incentive program.

“You have taken some major steps forward,” Van De Kamp told the council. “But we’re not there yet.”

According to the report, the city’s assets have fallen from $313,566,791 in 2007 to $181,690,500 in 2011, based on the draft of Vernon’s 2011-2012 fiscal year audit report.

Van De Kamp hopes Measures K, L and M, which would increase the business license tax, levy an annual parcel tax and a levy a 1% utility user tax respectively, raising $8 million for the city’s General Fund, are approved by the voters in the upcoming April 9 election.

“I think the city will be well on its way towards fiscal balance,” if they are approved, Van De Kamp said.

Warning the council he was about to say something they would not like, Van De Kamp advised the council to reduce the salaries of some of its longer members, which remain above the norm of other city councils doing the same job, and despite salary cuts taken when the city was facing disincorporation. At the time, some council members were receiving more than $70 thousand in salary, according to Van De Kamp. They are now paid $55,800 a year, which Van De Kamp says should be cut to $24,996, the same amount being paid to the council’s newest members, Michael Ybarra and Luz Martinez. The council previously decided that the salaries of the higher paid members would be reduced at the end of their terms.

Van De Kamp said he feels salaries need to be at the “mainstream level,” he said.

“I’ve urged them to put on the agenda a vote to put everyone at that level.”

The nearly 40-page report published on Jan. 31, also includes the city’s response to recommendations made by Sen. Kevin De Leon during the disincorporation upheaval. They call for greater accountability and transparency, a doubling of the voting population, and a good neighbor program.

“There’s a really clear line between the Vernon of the past and Vernon of today,” De Leon told EGP. “[The city] has made remarkable progress, it has become more transparent, more accountable.”

A recently approved housing project on 52nd Drive is expected to double the voting population and help satisfy the senator’s request for housing reform.

“We’re going to double the electorate by the time this is done,” De Leon said. “This is a positive sign.”

De Leon points out that expanding housing in the city will bring in a electorate not hand picked by the council as it was in the past.

“We’re changing that paradigm,” said De Leon.

Responding to De Leon’s recommendation that Vernon improve its relations with neighboring cities, the city created an Environmental Community Fund to help mitigate pollution caused by Vernon businesses over the years. In August 2011, the city council ordered that $5 million be set aside every year for the next 10 years for that fund, and set up a separate $10 million to fund recreational facilities in Boyle Heights and Huntington Park.

Van De Kamp told the council that they have not budgeted for those funds, thus not fulfilling that recommendation.

The report, however, points out that the main source for those funds was lost when the state decided to dissolve local redevelopment agencies. Vernon’s 2012-2013 Budget sets aside $3.2 million for both funds.

“Given the city’s general fund difficulties, negotiations with Sen. De Leon should be initiated to modify the 2011 Resolution to reduce the annual allocation but retaining the essential nature of the De Leon goals,” Van De Kamp advised in his report.

De Leon told EGP that while he understands the city’s financial situation may have changed, he does not feel that agreement should be modified.

“It’s my clear expectation that they fulfill their commitment,” De Leon told EGP. “The thesis behind this agreement was a good neighbor policy.”

De Leon said that Vernon was not a good neighbor in the past, and the fund was meant to address past bad policies that have affected the surrounding cities.

Van De Kamp told EGP that Vernon has improved its involvement in the surrounding areas.

“It used to be that Vernon was an outlier with other cities but I think today they’ve moved in a fairly quick pace to catch up with other cities,” Van De Kamp said. “I think Vernon is acting as a good citizen should.”

Van De Kamp’s reports also credits recent city hires, namely City Attorney Nicholas Rodriguez, Finance Director William Fox and Director of Human Resources Teresa McAllister, for working with long time city employees to change how Vernon operates.

“You really have a new face of Vernon in its management,” he said.

The new attorney is “ethically inclined to do the right thing” and has taken as much in-house work rather than outsourcing legal consultation, which previously cost the city a lot of money, Van De Kamp told EGP.  He said Fox is “looking at the city’s long term stability” which he hopes will bring balance to the budget.

The hiring of these qualified executives has democratized a city that had a history of being very secretive, echoed De Leon.

“We have slowly but surely opened up the city,” he told EGP.

Every six months since being hired as Vernon’s independent reform monitor in February 2012, Van De Kamp has issued a report detailing the city’s progress on good governance reform measures, initiatives and his recommendations. Although Van De Kamp has no executive power and all decisions regarding his recommendations are made by city council, the city administrator and city staff, Van De Kamp says in his report that there has been “substantial progress in Vernon in the past six months”.

“It must be said that the city, with very few exceptions, has shown its consistent support of the recommended reform measures,” Van De Kamp says in the report.

He said the council has worked together and has been willing to follow the recommendations set by De Leon and himself, but advised the council that they must be more active during council meeting by asking questions or raising issues.

“Maybe its habits from the past, but I would urge you to play a really positive role on shedding light on what’s going on in the city,” Van De Kamp said. “As you do that you become better informed and those that come here to council meetings become better informed too.”