Vernon Voters: Small But Mighty

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A single vote goes a long way in Vernon, where a mere 41 residents can determine the outcome of an election.

That’s what happened last week during the city’s all mail-in election, when 41 of the city’s 86 registered voters blocked a measure to raise Vernon’s utility user tax and reelected a council woman to a five-year term.

While Vernon has 1,800 businesses that employ more than 50,000 people, only about 200 people actually call the city home. The decisions those voters make can have a huge impact on businesses whose bottom lines have long relied on the city being business friendly.

 

City Council Makes History

Voters reelected Melissa Ybarra, who ran unopposed in the April 11 election and received 32 of the 41 votes canvassed. Ybarra was first elected to office to serve out the remaining term of her father Michael A. Ybarra, who died September 2014. This will mark her first official five-year term.

On Tuesday, Ybarra made history when she was selected by her colleagues to serve as Vernon’s first woman mayor.

Yvette Woodruff-Perez will continue to serve as mayor pro tem, marking the first time both the mayor and mayor pro tem are women.

“Never before have you had a female majority or female leadership on the City Council, and I believe that this is more proof that the City of Vernon is breaking down barriers and becoming a model of change for the Southeast Los Angeles area,” Ybarra told EGP.

Melissa Ybarra, who won reelection last week, made history Tuesday after becoming Vernon’s first female mayor.  (City of Vernon)

Melissa Ybarra, who won reelection last week, made history Tuesday after becoming Vernon’s first female mayor. (City of Vernon)

Measure Q Rejected

It took only 23 votes to defeat Measure Q – which would have raised the utility user tax from 1 percent to 6 percent for residents and businesses, generating an estimated $11 million to support city services.

It was an attempt by city officials to end the longstanding practice of using millions of dollars from Vernon’s profitable Gas & Electric Utility fund to subsidize the city’s budget shortfall. Although not illegal, the State discourages such transactions, viewing them as a hidden tax. The practice prompted credit rating company Moody’s Investor Service last year to downgrade the Vernon’s rating to a negative outlook.

Residents didn’t buy into the city’s claim that the impact to ratepayers would be minimal, and business owners previously questioned whether an offer of a 5 percent bill credit to cover the tax increase would be ongoing under the measure. Measure Q received only 14 yes votes.

The results are a sharp contrast to 2013 when voters approved a 1 percent utility user tax 34 to 7.

The election results were certified during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Vernon will now have no choice but to continue its existing practice of transferring utility revenues to the general fund, City Administrator Carlos Fandino told EGP in an email.

Fandino had previously called Measure Q a way to fulfill one of the recommendations made to improve good governance practices in Vernon.

The results of last week’s election, however, do point to an evolution in voting patterns in a city state officials once sought to disincorporate because they believed the city had too few residents and that they were too closely tied to city officials to keep them honest. At the time, Vernon had 112 residents and nearly all of them lived in city-owned housing. Of the city’s 62 registered voters, 5 were councilmembers, 8 were related to a council member, 5 were city employees, and 7 were related to a city employee or contractor. Incumbents – who routinely and without question approved staff recommendations–usually ran unopposed; voters willingly passed measures put before them.

“The argument goes that this has led to self aggrandizement and favoritism to the elected and appointed city officials and their friends and relatives,” wrote the late John Van De Kamp in his first report as Vernon Independent Reform Monitor in 2011.

To avoid disincorporation, Vernon agreed to good governance reforms, including increasing the size of the city’s electorate. The Vernon Village apartment complex opened in 2014, doubling the number of residents and adding 29 new registered voters in the city.

Woodruff-Perez credits the doubling of the city’s housing stock and a new city council that is willing to go out and engage constituents, for giving both residents and businesses a voice.

“Looking forward, we have opportunities to build on this by increasing voter education and community engagement to become a leader not just in the Los Angeles area but the entire state,” Woodruff-Perez told EGP.

By 2015, a turnaround appeared to be taking hold, making incumbents less assured of reelection. Last year, a write-in candidate successfully replaced a longtime city official. Rejection of Measure Q further demonstrates the willingness of voters to oppose city leaders.

Fandino told EGP he is encouraged by the increased participation seen from the community.

“Along with the 170 reforms the city has made, this is another sign that the City of Vernon is a changed city.”

 

Vernon Utility Tax Measure Too Close to Call

April 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Vernon voters narrowly rejected a utility tax measure Tuesday, according to unofficial election results, but that could change once outstanding ballots are counted.

If approved, Measure Q would raise an estimated $11 million in general fund revenue, which would allow city officials to offset the millions of dollars currently transferred to the account from the Vernon Gas & Electricity Utility Enterprise fund. The measure received 12 votes in opposition and 10 votes in favor.

Voters also re-elected Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra, who ran unopposed and received 24 of the 26 votes canvassed. Ybarra was first elected to office to serve out the remaining term of her father Michael A. Ybarra, who died September 2014. This will mark her first official five-year term.

So far, 26 of the 43 ballots submitted during the all mail-in ballot election have been counted. The remaining ballots submitted at Vernon’s two polling locations Tuesday and postmarked by Election Day are scheduled to be canvassed Monday.

Vernon has 86 registered voters.

Vernon Planning Utility Rate Increase

December 1, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Vernon residents and businesses could soon see an increase in their utility bills under a proposed tax measure that could go before voters in April.

Business owners filled city hall chambers Tuesday to hear more about Measure Q, which if passed would increase the Utility User Tax (UUT) from 1 percent to 6 percent. The city council is expected to call for the measure to be placed on the April 11, 2017 election ballot during the January 10 council meeting.

“Business owners don’t have a vote but it’s important to educate them because they will be the ones affected by it,” explained City Administrator Carlos Fandino, quickly claiming the measure is not a revenue-generating measure but rather a good governance decision.

For years, Vernon has sought to shore up its budget deficits by transferring funds from the city’s profitable Gas and Electric Department to its general fund, an amount that reached $9 million in each of the last two years.

The practice recently prompted the credit rating company Moody’s Investor Service to downgrade the city’s rating to a negative outlook, Fandino said. The State of California discourages such transactions because it is viewed as a hidden tax.

To offset the increase, the city is prepared to offer electric utility customers a 5 percent bill credit equivalent to the utility tax increase, which would be covered by the elimination of the operating transfer.

Vernon city staff hosted an informational meeting about a proposed utility tax measure Tuesday. (City of Vernon)

Vernon city staff hosted an informational meeting about a proposed utility tax measure Tuesday. (City of Vernon)

All other utility customers, however, including water, gas, fiber optics and phone, will still see their bills go up by 6 percent.

Under the proposed rate increase, a moderate sized business should expect their water bills to go up $550. Residents on the other hand will see less than a $2 hike in fees.

If passed, Measure Q is expected to generate a net gain of $1 million, says Fandino, who says the city is simply “moving dollars from one bucket to the other.”

“It is still an increase,” says Peter Corselli, vice president of U.S. Growers Cold Storage, one of the city’s largest businesses.

“The cost of doing business in the city goes up,” added Henry Haskell, chief executive officer and president of Square-H Brands, Inc. “This is an increase on the backs of industry.”

Corselli told EGP his large business would see one of the highest jumps in the city, explaining that at $3 million a year, utility costs are his business’ second largest operating expense.

With just 300 residents in a city with over 1,800 businesses, Vernon prides itself for being business-friendly, often boasting that its utility rates are lower than those of neighboring utility companies.

The city has not raised gas prices since the city’s inception, according to Fandino.

Dave Gardena of Baker Commodities, however, told EGP rates have been going up for years and he does not understand why the city would increase electric rates only to credit it back.

“The revenue is still coming from utilities,” he said “It’s just a horse with a different color.”

When asked how long the 5 percent bill credit would be offered, Fandino said that answer would be determined by the results of the city’s yearly rate analysis.

Why does the city always look to increase utility rates when it needs to fill in the budget, one business owner asked? City Finance Director Bill Fox responded that Vernon is unique and its small population prevents it from generating revenue from other sources, such as taxes or local government returns that are calculated based on the size of a city’s residential population.

“When you have 300 residents you don’t get much of a share,” he said.

After the presentation, Haskell told EGP he’s now convinced that the increase is needed.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “I don’t see it as an increase; the reasons he talked about were reasonable.”

According to the city, business owners and residents will have the opportunity to file arguments for or against the measure next year, and a public examination period will be held before it goes before the voters.

Write-In Candidate Upends Vernon Election

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

In an unexpected turn of events, a write-in candidate has beat out a longtime councilman for a seat on the Vernon City Council.

Leticia Lopez, 32, made Vernon history April 12 when she beat out Mayor W. Michael McCormick by two votes.

City Clerk Maria E. Ayala and a four-member election canvassing board declared Lopez the winner Monday following a final canvass of 7 outstanding ballots. Lopez received 21 votes to McCormick’s 14. A second write-in candidate, David J. Ybarra, received one vote.

McCormick served on the council for 42 years.

It was a big departure from past elections where candidates often ran unopposed.

“I went door to door to talk to neighbors,” Lopez told EGP, explaining her victory. “I asked them about their concerns and dreams for the city and told them this wasn’t the first and last time they would see me: I would come back.”

On Tuesday, Lopez joined Councilmembers Melissa Ybarra, Luz Martinez and newly appointed Mayor Pro Tem Yvette Woodruff-Perez and Mayor William “Bill” Davis behind the dais and will serve a five-year term. Woodruff-Perez is the first woman to serve as Vernon’s Mayor Pro Tem.

For years, the five-person council was made up entirely of men. Now women – all Latinas — have four of the five seats, leading one department head to appropriately refer to the council as “mayor and councilwomen.”

Marisa Olguin, president and C.E.O. of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, told EGP the results of the election are “historic and groundbreaking.”

For the first time in Vernon’s history, four of the five-member City Council are women. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez )

For the first time in Vernon’s history, four of the five-member City Council are women. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez )

“It really symbolizes the changes happening,” she said. “Residents are voting for change.”
Lopez, a family advocate assigned to the Human Services Association’s Head Start program, told EGP she ultimately decided to run to be an advocate at home.

Lopez has a Bachelors Degree in Human Development from Cal State Long Beach and is currently working on her masters at Pacific Oaks College.

“I wanted to be a voice for residents,” she said. “I want to form a community, a medium for industry, employees and neighbors.”

Lopez lived in nearby Huntington Park before moving into a home adjacent to Vernon City Hall two years ago. The mother of two says she and her husband have kept an eye on the issues brought on by the now shuttered Exide plant in Vernon.

“[Exide] has impacted my life,” she said. “I don’t let my children play in the backyard,” she pointed out.

Lopez plans to monitor state funds coming in to help expedite the cleanup and says she hopes to join Ybarra’s efforts to make the city itself more family-friendly, perhaps by opening a public park.

Lopez told EGP she is somewhat familiar with the industrial city’s dark past, but has seen the city become more transparent in recent years.

“I’m coming with a fresh, positive outlook and I want a clear mind free of negativity so that I make the best decisions for my city now,” she said adamantly.

“These are exciting times here in Vernon with the new vision and new direction it is going in,” said City Administrator Carlos R. Fandino Tuesday, welcoming Lopez to the “Vernon family.”

Noting the number of fresh faces on the council and new department heads, Fandino suggested the city consider holding a retreat to discuss their vision for Vernon.

Former California Attorney General and Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp joined the city as its independent reform monitor in 2011 and now serves as Vernon’s Independent Special Counsel, and says, “Vernon has really turned a new leaf.”

“All these tremendous changes are very healthy,” he told EGP.

Van de Kamp believes the biggest issue facing the new council is how to handle pension liabilities and still balance the budget. In an often-repeated refrain, he said councilmembers “need to ask questions. They must make sure the city is on its path to meet the needs of the businesses and residents,” he explained.

While the total number of votes cast might not generate much celebration outside Vernon, Ayala said she is proud of Vernon’s 51 percent voter turnout. The city has been working on increasing its electorate, going as far as building new housing to increase the voter pool. This election marked the first time those new voters had a chance to cast a ballot.

Yet, while the city’s population has doubled, voter registrations only increased by six since the last election. Van de Kamp told EGP he has not seen as many registered voters from the new Vernon Village Park as he would like.

“Looking ahead, we must continue to do outreach with the electorate,” Ayala acknowledged.

Correction 12:50 p.m. April 28, 2016 An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Yvette Woodruff-Perez as Lyvette. The article also inaccurately stated that 36 out of the 72 registered voters reflected the voter turnout when in fact it related to the ballots counted.

Write-In Candidate Leading in Vernon Race

April 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Two votes may make the difference in Vernon’s latest election, according to a preliminary vote count that has a write-in candidate leading a longtime sitting councilman.

Leticia Lopez received 15 votes, while Mayor W. Michael McCormick received 13 votes, according to the unofficial vote tally. A second write-in candidate, David J. Ibarra, received one vote during Tuesday’s city council race.

Vernon uses a vote-by-mail format for all its elections, and according to the city clerk’s office, 33 of 72 potential vote-by-mail ballots were received by Tuesday, Election Day. One ballot was disallowed because it was missing the voter signature and three ballots are pending voter signature verification.

If Lopez is declared the winner, four of the five Vernon council members will be Latina, a first in the industrial city’s history.

A final vote canvass of all outstanding and pending ballots, including those that were postmarked by the April 12 deadline, will be conducted on Monday, April 18 at 1 p.m.

McCormick has served on Vernon’s City Council since 1974.

Vernon To Hold Election April 12

March 24, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Vernon’s longest sitting councilmember will run against a write in candidate April 12.

Mayor W. Michael McCormick will face Leticia Lopez.

McCormick has served on the Vernon council since 1974. A change in term limits in 2011 limits councilmembers to two five-year term in office, with a lifetime ban thereafter. Any terms in office served before the measure was approved did not apply toward the two-term limit.

McCormick was re-elected seven months before the term limits were in effect. If re-elected, he has the opportunity to seek an additional 5-year term in 2021.

Voters must submit their vote-by-mail ballot to the city clerk’s office in city hall by 5p.m. Tuesday, April 12. There are 65 registered voters in Vernon, only 35 ballots were cast in the last election.

Correction 5:30 p.m. March 30, 2016 An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the election marks the last time Mayor W. Michael McCormick is eligible to run for re-election.

Vernon to Push Voter Registration In City

November 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

For years, election of city office holders has come down to ballots cast by as few as two-dozen registered voters in Vernon, but with the recent doubling of the city’s residential population that could change.

The city hopes to increase Vernon’s current pool of 63 registered voters by reaching out to people living in the recently opened Vernon Village Park development, and will hold an informational meeting there Nov. 18 to explain how elections work in the city.

While Vernon has yet to see any new voter registrations since the housing project opened, “we are hoping that will soon change,” City Clerk Maria E. Ayala told EGP.

Ayala said her office is hosting the meeting and that staff will explain Vernon’s voting process. They will also be armed with voter registration and change of address forms to make the process more convenient for residents.

Vernon elections are conducted by mail-in-ballot – meaning there are no polling places or voting booths. While vote-by-mail ballots are not new, the “practice may be completely different to what new residents are used to,” Ayala said.

The city clerk said her office has also compiled and distributed Vernon’s first resident information pamphlet containing contact information for city departments and important meeting dates to encourage residents to get involved in the city.

The Nov. 18 meeting is open to all city residents – even if they are already registered to vote in L.A. County – and Spanish translation will be available. The meeting will be held at the Vernon Village Community Room located at 4675 E. 52nd Drive.

The city’s next election is scheduled for April 12, when Mayor W. Michael McCormick’s term expires.

Vernon Election Feb. 17

February 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Vernon residents will submit their vote-by-mail ballots Tuesday to elect a council member to fill the unexpired term of Michael A. Ybarra who passed away unexpectedly.

Ybarra’s daughter Melissa Ybarra is the sole candidate running for the seat that expires in 2017.

Voters can mail their ballot or drop it off at the city clerk’s office located at 4305 S. Santa Fe Ave, Vernon 90058 by 8p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 17.

For more information, call the City Clerk’s office at (323) 583-8811 extension 546 or email cityclerk@ci.vernon.ca.us.

Daughter Seeks Deceased Father’s Vernon Council Seat

January 8, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

It was 2012 and the Vernon City Council Chamber was jammed pack with residents, business owners and city employees who had shown up to watch the voter fraud hearings going on following a hotly contested special election. It was the second time in six months that city council elections results were being challenged, highly unusual in a city where until then elections were mostly determined before ballots were even cast.

In the end, Luz Martinez beat out her opponent after a special hearing officer disqualified several votes.

Two years have gone by and the last two elections have been polar opposite of those days, with incumbents quietly running unopposed.

Next month, Vernon voters will undertake the task of filling the council seat left vacant by the unexpected death of Councilman Michael A. Ybarra last September. Only one candidate will be listed on the Feb. 17 Special Election ballot, but it’s a name that is will sound familiar to residents.

Melissa Ybarra, 37, the deceased councilman’s middle daughter, is running to fill out the remainder of her father’s term that expires in 2017.

A lifelong resident of Vernon, Ybarra says her passion for the city has grown over the years. The 18-year operations manager for a printing company told EGP she’s been thinking about running for years, ever since AB 46 threatened to take away Vernon’s cityhood status.

“My Dad beat me to the punch,” she said, but “Running for office was always in the back of my mind.”

With over 1,800 businesses but only 110 residents, Vernon has undergone a great deal of criticism from outsiders who question whether it’s electorate is large enough to hold city government accountable.

“The city where I had lived my whole life was about to be taken away,” Melissa recalled about legislative efforts in 2011 to disincorporate Vernon. “I want to move forward with transparency and helping the business community grow,” she said about her reasons for running.

Her father was elected on a “reform” agenda in the wake of the disincorporation movement. He was the most vocal member of the council and many in the community saw him as a breath of fresh air after decades of little change.

Peter Corselli, vice president of U.S. Growers Cold Storage, Inc, says “the voice of the business community” was lost when Ybarra died.

Corselli met Melissa during the “Save Vernon” campaign and he told EGP he hopes she will be even more outspoken and questioning than her father.

Melissa says she is outspoken like her father, and like him she will not rely heavily on city staff to set policy, as some have criticized the council of doing.

“If I don’t understand [something], I am going to ask the questions,” she said. “If I feel something is wrong, I will speak up.”

“I was surprised nobody ran against me,” she said, feeling somewhat conflicted. “With all that we have fought for in the past, I wish more people would put their hat in the ring.” She vows to work on increasing community involvement.

But with only 60 eligible voters in the city, Corselli says he’s not surprised no one else is running.

Vernon’s Reform Monitor John Van De Kamp, however, feels there could be something else at play; He says the lack of candidates in this particular election is not out of a lack of interest, but rather out of respect for the late councilman.

Though he does not know Melissa personally, Van De Kamp told EGP she comes from an “outstanding family” with a deep-rooted history in the city.

Her grandfather, Thomas A. Ybarra served on the city council for 43 years. Another distant relative, Esteban Peralta, opened the first store in Vernon in 1905, the year the city was incorporated. He served 15 years on the council during the 1930s and ‘40s.

“She comes with her father holding her seat,” Councilman Richard Maisano told EGP, adding Melissa knows what it takes to be an elected official.

Maisano’s term is up in April but says he will not seek reelection because the job is too time consuming.

His departure marks the end of an era of sorts, he’s the last in a long line of appointed council members. A city ordinance now prohibits the appointment of council members.

On Tuesday, the council voted to place another measure on the ballot aimed at changing elections in the city, in this case limiting the number of active city employees on the council to one.

Individuals interested in running for the city council have until Jan. 20 to submit their nomination application for the April 17 General Election. As of press time, no candidates had submitted their applications for the five-year term, according to the city clerk’s office.

However, there are murmurs of interested candidates, some who have already requested a nomination package.

Maisano told EGP that one of his neighbors is interested in running.

A 45-unit affordable housing project scheduled to open later this year could double the city’s eligible voters and with it the pool of potential candidates for public office. According to Maisano, some businesses in the city are encouraging their employees to apply to live in the new housing in hopes of securing some type of business voice on the council, and among the electorate.

But more residents does not necessarily mean more or better qualified candidates, says Van De Kamp, who stressed the importance of putting residents on commissions in order to prepare them for public office.

“The fact is that there are not many people in Vernon with the interest and background to run,” he said.

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