Women Shaping Vernon of the Future

March 24, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Like some of its neighbors in east and southeast Los Angeles County, women now outnumber men on the Vernon City Council.

The three women on the five member council were all elected during a time of transition in the city, which has spent the last several years trying to move past its reputation as a place mired in corruption and pollution.

“Vernon is changing,” says Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra with pride. “It’s going in a new direction that five or ten years ago nobody believed it could.”

Ybarra, 38, was elected in March 2015 to fill out the remainder of the term left vacant by the unexpected death of her father, Michael A. Ybarra.

“I was nervous” when I first took office, she told EGP.

“Same here,” chimes in Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez, 35.

She joined Councilmembers Ybarra, Luz Martinez, W. Michael McCormick and William ‘Bill’ Davis on the dais in April 2015. Her election was history making in the city, marking the first time the city council would be dominated by women – all Latinas.

“I love the fact that female residents can step up and lead and not be intimated,” Woodruff-Perez said.

Like some of it’s neighboring cities, Vernon’s past has been riddled with political corruption. Highly industrial, with more manufacturing, warehousing, animal rendering plants and other types of industry than people living in the city, Vernon was at every level very much a man’s world. Including the all male city council that for years just rubber-stamped staff recommendations without questions.

But that’s all changed, according to Ybarra and Woodruff-Perez, who during their short time in office have changed the tone of the city council from quiet and trusting, to more questioning and willing to direct staff, rather than the other way around.

Woodruff-Perez recalls that at age 5 she was translating for her parents who only spoke Spanish.

“I carried that with me, and learned if you speak up people listen.”

Ybarrra has been vocal about the need for more housing, like the fairly recently opened Vernon Village Park, which doubled the city’s population and was key to good governance reform. Now she wants to bring businesses and residents closer together as one community, and to get it done before her she comes up for reelection next spring.

“There always seems to be a line between the residents and the businesses,” she noted. “That’s why we need more community involvement.”

Councilwoman Yvette Woodroof-Perez, left, and Melissa Ybarra, right, represent Vernon’s new generation of leaders. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Councilwoman Yvette Woodroof-Perez, left, and Melissa Ybarra, right, represent Vernon’s new generation of leaders. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The two councilwoman would like to see more recreational and cultural opportunities for the city’s 200 or so residents living near the State Route 710. A community-based marathon, art, music and fitness classes are a few of their suggestions. They’d also like to develop scholarship and resident recognition programs and perhaps open a pocket park.

“Vernon should be a place where people choose to go instead of sitting in traffic,” Woodruff-Perez said.

That’s where businesses come in, she said, pointing out the number of businesses that could make a variety of public-private partnerships possible. If the city, for example, wanted to take part in the Rose Parade, there are a number of steel companies that would surely donate and volunteer, she suggested.

But some of the city’s businesses have also hurt Vernon’s reputations with its neighbors, who accuse the city of only caring about what’s good for business and not the community at large.

Communication is key to repairing those damaged relationships, according to Ybarra, who says she always keeps lines of communication open.

“If [residents] want to know something and have questions I will gladly talk to them.”

A health fair is another way to bring Vernon residents and their neighbors together, suggests Woodruff-Perez, whose background is in nursing.

“We want them to know that we do care as a city,” added Ybarra.

When it comes to politics, Woodruff-Perez told EGP she wants the three women on the council to use their platform to educate and motivate people to run for office. For years, most of Vernon’s elections were uncontested. The April 12 council election was in danger of going down that same road, but it now appears Leticia Lopez will challenge longtime council member, Mayor W. Michael McCormick, as a write-in candidate.

Vernon’s Independent Special Counsel, former Attorney General and Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp acknowledges the city is going through a “major transition.” The city has implemented 150 good governance reforms since 2011 when it was nearly disincorporated amid charges of misappropriation of funds, voter fraud and excessive executive salaries.

“This was something I wanted to be a part of,” explains Ybarra, as she looks toward the future. “It gives me a sense of pride knowing I’m doing this not just for the future of my kids but for the city.”

Vernon Administrator Retires Abruptly

January 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The city of Vernon will soon have a new interim city administrator at the helm following the abrupt retirement of Mark Whitworth, who exits with six months in severance pay.

Update: Vernon Appoints Interim City Administrator 

Whitworth is the fourth administrator to leave in 10 years. The three before him — Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., Eric Fresch and Donal O’Callaghan — all left under a cloud of political corruption and allegations of wrongdoing. Whitworth, the city’s fire chief at the time, was appointed Interim City Administrator in 2010 when O’Callaghan was suspended while being investigated on felony corruption charges to which he later pleaded guilty.

Whitworth was later made the permanent administrator, charged with shepherding the city through a tumultuous era of transformation.

Lea este artículo en Español: Administrador de Vernon se Retira Abruptamente

His sudden departure comes just weeks after he announced he would retire on May 2 of this year, giving the city ample time to find a replacement. At the time, Whitworth said May was a “firm date.”

Vernon Deputy City Clerk Ana Barcia confirmed Monday that Whitworth retired Dec 28 but would not elaborate further on what prompted the former city administrator to leave 5 months ahead of schedule.

Vernon is no stranger to controversy when it comes to its public officials, so Whitworth’s sudden departure has caused some people in the city to speculate he was forced out of office during a closed-session meeting the same day he retired.

In an email to EGP, a person who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation noted that the agenda for the closed-session included discussion with legal counsel over “significant exposure to litigation.” Also on the agenda was discussion of the public employment of city administrator, the appointment of an interim city administrator and an item regarding the discipline/dismissal/release of a public employee, who the email writer speculated was Whitworth.

The meeting lasted three hours after which Special Legal Counsel Joung Yim announced there was no reportable action taken, according to city minutes.

On Wednesday, however, through a freedom of information request, EGP obtained from the city a copy of a settlement agreement between Vernon and Whitworth that seems to demonstrate city officials were willing to pay for his early departure.

According to the settlement, Whitworth, an at-will employee, will receive nearly $147,000 in severance pay, despite not being entitled to such pay under Section 6 (E) of his contract, which states if he “voluntarily resigns or retires … City shall have no obligation to pay any severance provided in this section…”

Former city administrator Mark Whitworth during a city council meeting. (City of Vernon)

Former city administrator Mark Whitworth during a city council meeting. (City of Vernon)

The settlement agreement, in great detail, releases the city, it’s employees, governing body, or agents from being the subject of any lawsuit brought by Whitworth or a group in which he is a named participant claiming any wrongdoing by the city.

It goes on to state that execution of the settlement is not to be “construed as an admission by City or Whitworth of any unlawful or wrongful acts,” against each other or any other person.

According to Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra, however, speculation that something untoward is afoot is unfounded. She assured that Whitworth’s decision to retire early was “amicable,” adding that the litigation discussed at the meeting had nothing to do with the city administrator.

“I’ve been getting questions from people, but I want to stress there was nothing illegal about it,” she said. “Mark [Whitworth] was not pushed into retirement.”

Without divulging what was said in closed session, Ybarra said Whitworth’s earlier retirement actually falls in line with the city’s recruitment and hiring timeline for a new city administrator.

She added that the city expects to hire his permanent replacement within the next two months.

The city council will take up the appointment on an interim administrator during a special closed session meeting at 2 p.m. today, Thursday, according to City Clerk Maria Ayala.

Vernon’s Independent Reform Monitor John Van de Kamp told EGP he anticipated that some people would question Whitworth’s abrupt departure and advised city staff to release a statement.

Van de Kamp said he actually expected Whitworth’s to retire sooner based on previous conversations with the former city administrator.

“He [Whitworth] deserves a lot of credit, he came in during a difficult time,” he said. “My guess is there will be, and should be, substantial celebration” honoring his tenure in the city.

Whitworth helped turn the city around, echoed Jim Andreoly Jr. of Baker Commodities. He did it by executing the reform process, he told EGP.

“The next city administrator will have big shoes to fill,” Andreoly Jr. said, explaining that Vernon is undergoing a major transitional period.

The hiring of a new city administrator and several department heads in coming months will be some of the most important decisions the city council will make in recent years, Van de Kamp told EGP.

“All it takes is a bad administrator and we go back to the way things were.”

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

Vernon Council Leads New Era for Industrial City

October 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The Vernon City Council’s meeting last week was a marked change from meetings of years past when councilmembers unquestioningly took direction and rubber stamped recommendations from a corrupt former city administrator.

Gone was the once shy, quiet and trusting council. Taking its place last week was a council that now demands answers from staff and is not afraid to put items on hold if not satisfied with the responses. It’s the latest indication that a new political era could be taking hold in Vernon in the wake of good governance reforms years in the making.

Mayor W. Michael McCormick

Mayor W. Michael McCormick

Spectators at the Oct. 6 council meeting likely did a double take as councilmembers diverted from their usual non-confrontational review of agenda items and spent nearly an hour grilling city staff about their recommendation to sell off city-owned housing in Huntington Park and to raise rents on some residential units in Vernon to pay for needed repairs.

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis

While this type of discourse is common in other cities, it’s a far cry from business as usual in a city whose motto “Exclusively Industrial!” aptly reflects its long held focus on what’s best for the 8,000 businesses that call Vernon home, rather than its small residential population that only recently doubled in size and now totals about 200 people.

Most of the city’s residents – and its electorate – live in city-owned apartments and houses. Only five homes in Vernon are not city-owned properties. The prospect of raising rents did not sit well with the council.

Councilwoman Luz Martinez

Councilwoman Luz Martinez

Two councilmembers, Luz Martinez and Melissa Ybarra,  excused themselves from the discussion citing conflict of interest, leaving Mayor W. Michael McCormick, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis and newly elected Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez to push staff for more details and to justify their recommendations.

“If we’re getting money from selling the Huntington Park properties why do we need to increase the rent for tenants,” Davis asked staff repeatedly.

Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra

Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra

The city owns 31 housing units, 26 in Vernon and 7 in the neighboring city of Huntington Park. The homes were built in the 1940s and 1960s. In 2007, the city did a major remodel of 19 of the Vernon units but did not make repairs to the other 7 units due to a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

With city finances out of the red, staff has proposed renovating the remaining properties. They also have recommended the city sell 3 of the 7 single-family homes and condominiums it owns in Huntington Park.

Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez

Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez

Public Works Director Kevin Wilson said rents would be raised over $200 a month to recover the cost of improvements such as new appliances, kitchen and bathroom remodeling, new carpet, painting, water and heating system upgrades and lead abatement.

“If we’re going to do anything we need to do these minimal improvements” to avoid larger repairs down road, he cautioned the council.

Tenants are also facing a market-rate rent adjustment expected to take place in mid-2016, according to Deputy City Administrator Kristen Enomoto.

The city’s housing commission, however, says it’s unlikely current tenants can afford an increase over $250.

The figures alarmed the council.

“To increase rent would put a burden on the residents of Vernon” who already have to deal with the disadvantages that come with living in a heavily industrial city, Davis said.

For example, in Vernon “We can’t just walk to get some groceries,” he pointed out.

Only half the homes on a cul-de-sac behind Vernon City Hall have received needed repairs. The city is debating how to pay for the rest. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Only half the homes on a cul-de-sac behind Vernon City Hall have received needed repairs. The city is debating how to pay for the rest. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The focus on rental rates is new in the city, where for decades housing costs were kept artificially low to keep control of the city’s voter pool. During the last five years, however, in response to allegations of political corruption the city has adopted a number of reforms and rents that once were as little as $200 a month have been increased to get them closer to market rate, according to City Administrator Mark Whitworth.

The rate adjustments have brought rents to between $696 to $1,700 for 1 and 2 bedroom apartments and 2 and 3 bedroom single-family homes. The rental fee includes a 30 percent adversity discount to reflect the uniqueness of living in a city that does not have a park, library or amenities common in other cities.

“We don’t want to price people out of housing,” cautioned Stewart Leibowitz, legal counsel to the Vernon Housing Commission. “Most residents have been here a long time and we are uniquely sensitive to that,” he said.

If the city owns the housing units free and clear, why do we need to increase rents to pay for the rehab, Whitworth questioned.

“Where is that $700 to $1300 in rent going?” pushed McCormick.

Funds accrued from rent are used to maintain the properties and deal with issues that may arise, according to Whitworth. Though the costs vary per year, the 2014-2015 general maintenace cost of Vernon-owned housing was approximately $197,000 according to city staff.

“We’re trying to standardize and get the rent and homes” to uniform pricing, responded Enomoto, explaining that tenants in previously remodeled units pay higher rents for their units.

“We don’t want to be slumlords but we don’t want to overspend either,” said the city’s public works director.

Wilson argued that there should be a rent adjustment for tenants whose rents have not been raised to reflect the improved quality of the homes.

“They’re in good shape, but there are two distinct standards,” he said. “Some have clearly been remodeled and others haven’t and the rent reflects that,” he noted.

The mayor thinks money earned from selling off the properties in Huntington Park listed at $398,000 should be used to pay for remodeling residential properties in Vernon, which would cost $37,000 to $100,000 per unit depending on the extent of improvements needed.

“If you do minimal repairs residents might feel ‘the city doesn’t care about us,’” he warned.

McCormick did agree, however, that rents should be inline with other city-owned properties once repairs are made.

Leibowitz reminded the council that new city policies require rents be set at market rate. “We’re dealing with a different set of rules, to be perfectly candid,” he said.

The council decided to table the decision until they get more information and input from the public. Davis directed city staff to do more outreach to inform the public about potential rent increases before the council makes a decision.

Woodruff-Perez told city staff she wants to see a draft of any communication referencing the issue before it’s sent to residents.

“The more we discuss it, the more things come to light that need answers,” she said.

 

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