Vernon Grapples With Coming Changes

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

As the city of Vernon continues its search for a new city administrator and two additional department heads, staff is recommending the city council take steps to make the industrial city more attractive to potential candidates for top administrative positions.
City Administrator Mark Whitworth will retire in a few months and staff has asked the City Council to approve a new higher-tiered retiree medical benefit program for city executives.
Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra, however, was not comfortable with the recommendation, strongly telling staff she needs more information before she can decide whether their proposal warrants consideration.
“Why are we covering their spouses” for example, she asked.
Interim Human Resource Director Lisette Grizzelle said the proposed changes are meant to make Vernon more attractive to those who may need the extra incentive to work in the city. She said her department surveyed nearby cities and found most provide similar benefits.
For years, Vernon was synonymous with the political corruption that swept the southeast communities. Previous city officials were accused of bulking up their benefits packages by receiving compensation for several positions not listed on the city’s pay schedule, leaving current councilmembers leery of repeating the same mistake.
To this day, former Vernon city administrator Bruce Malkenhorst is the highest paid retiree under the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CALPERS). He was at one point receiving a monthly pension of over $44,000, which CALPERS eventually reduced to $10,000 a month on grounds that his pay while with the city had been improperly inflated. The pension system is now seeking to get back $3.4 million in overpayments to Malkenhorst.
The city is no longer facing a budget deficit, but in Vernon, like many other cities and the state, unfunded pensions are a looming concern.
To that end, Ybarra wanted clarification on where the money for the new higher benefits would come from, but staff was unable to give the council a direct answer on a revenue source. Ybarra felt city staff was leaning toward an “approve this and we’ll find the money down the line,” scenario.
“So, you’re asking us to approve this but we don’t know how we will fund it yet,” said Ybarra in disbelief.
“I don’t want to approve something and then have to find the funding later,” she said.
The council moved to table discussion until city staff can provide more information on a funding source and timeline.
The council also discussed whether to extend Vernon’s independent reform monitor, former Attorney General and Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp’s contract: He has served in the position for four years.
As independent reform monitor, Van De Kamp’s job was to oversee Vernon’s implementation of 150 good governance reforms brokered by Sen. Kevin de Leon as part of a 2011 deal to keep the State Legislature from passing a bill that would have disincorporated the city amid charges of misappropriation of funds, voter fraud and excessive executive salaries.
“Having fulfilled the reforms we need to close the book on that section,” Whitworth advised the council during its Dec. 15 meeting.
He recommended that Van de Kamp’s contract be extended one year under the new title of special advisor. Whitworth’s concern is that the current title “inaccurately” gives people outside the city the impression Vernon’s reform process is not finished.
Vernon is a new city, Whitworth told staff when he announced his retirement earlier this month.
“The challenges that faced Vernon five years ago were substantial, ending the city’s decades long practice of ‘running things the way they’ve always been run’ and ‘doing things they way they’ve always been done,’” he said.

In the coming months, the Vernon City council will be tasked with finding a new city administrator, two department heads and whether they should extend the contract of their Independent Reform Monitor.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

In the coming months, the Vernon City council will be tasked with finding a new city administrator, two department heads and whether they should extend the contract of their Independent Reform Monitor. (EGP photo by Nancy Martin

Van de Kamp, noting there are two new members on the council, an election in April and the search for a new city administrator and the directors of public works and human resources underway, countered that the city still needs an independent overseer.
“We’re going through a major transition,” he explained. “In fairness, a lot of good has happened in Vernon with a lot of credit going to [City Administrator] Mark…but we haven’t completed everything, a lot has not been accomplished.”
Marisa Olguin of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce agreed. She told the council that the city still faces challenges, including fulfilling PERS funding obligations, recently restructured debt and providing services to its 100 or so new residents.
“Healthy governance is ongoing and must be maintained now more than ever as we’re going through this transition,” she said.
“I think the key word to what Mr. Van de Kamp and his team brings is independence,” she added.
If a title change is needed, how about “independent healthy governance advisor,” she suggested.
His role represents continuity and good governance, transparency, oversight, and a smooth transition, she said. It doesn’t communicate there’s reason for doubt or something to be concerned about, she added.
“It communicates that the Vernon Council takes its role seriously and that we’re taking steps to continue our healthy self-governance,” Olguin said.
Ybarra told EGP the next city administrator needs to have the experience, must be ethical that will be instrumental in continuing the good governance. In the meantime, the council voted to delay its decision on Van de Kamp’s position until the next council meeting.

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December 23, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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