Vernon: A Changed City

May 25, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Listening to and responding to residents is one of the hallmarks of good government and creating connections that make that happen has the been the focus for the City of Vernon over the past five years. That’s why we wanted to follow-up to last week’s article, “Vernon Outreach: Work In Progress,” and provide a more complete picture of how the City of Vernon touches the lives of its residents every day.

First, ensuring that Vernon residents are heard at the ballot box is one of the City Council’s top priorities. Over the last two years, the City has held voter registration events at Vernon Village Apartments and the Sabor de Mexico Lindo celebration. The City has gone door-to-door to drop off mailers, speak with residents and has added new ballot drop-off locations to make voting more convenient. We’ve held community meetings and public meetings in the evening to ensure the public has a chance to be heard. While few residents attend the meetings, the hard work is paying off. Just two years ago, residents elected write-in candidate Leticia Lopez over a 42-year incumbent.

Second, the City has answered a regional need and made affordable housing more accessible. From Vernon Village Apartments to the City-owned single family residences sprinkled throughout the City, nearly all of Vernon’s housing is subsidized – giving residents the opportunity to rent high-quality homes in communities that boast one of the lowest crime rates in Southeast Los Angeles. Our housing lottery system ensures that everyone has equal opportunity and since the City is built out, we donate a million dollars a year to build libraries, parks and community centers in neighboring communities to serve our residents as well as our neighbors.

Third, the City of Vernon is also reaching out to our residents on a personal level. City staff volunteer at Vernon City Elementary School providing presentations on everything from engineering to groundwater supplies to Earth Day. Police officers walk through the school and communities multiple times a day to connect with residents and business owners. They deliver turkey dinners to nearly a quarter of the residents who have been identified as low income while firefighters hold fundraisers and blood drives. It’s our hope that through these everyday, casual encounters we can connect with the community, proactively address concerns as well as encourage the City’s people to get involved.

Finally, we continue to impact our residents and the region through jobs. The City has a growing economy with nationally and internationally recognized brands including Amazon, Whole Foods, Seven-Up/RC Bottling Company as well as up-and-coming green companies like Romeo Power. Thanks to Vernon’s business friendly atmosphere, these companies contribute more than 50,000 jobs and $4.4 Billion in wages annually to Los Angeles County.

Our goal is to grow jobs and grow our community.

The City of Vernon is changing and we invite our businesses and residents to get involved. We’ve expanded our communication efforts and invite you to join us on Tuesday, June 20th at the first of three community events planned at Vernon Village. The event will include presentations on City services and, more importantly, provide an opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other. Join us at Vernon Village or follow us on social media. Give us your feedback, ideas and, along with your elected representatives, help guide the change.

And don’t worry, we won’t forget the food and coffee!

Carlos Fandino is the City of Vernon’s city administrator. In that capacity, he oversees the city’s daily operations, public relations, legislative process and finances.

 

Vernon Outreach: ‘Work in Progress’

May 18, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Since moving 3 years ago to the Vernon Village apartment complex, where half of Vernon’s residents live, Emilia Bernal says she has yet to attend a council meeting, vote in an election or speak with a city official. Her reason: She doesn’t feel a part of the industrial city.

Bernal has a long list of concerns and wishes the city would make it easier for residents like her to get involved by holding meetings at the apartment complex, preferably in the late afternoon or on the weekend when people are more likely to be home. With just 200 residents it should be easy to do, Bernal said Monday, explaining it’s hard to get to council meetings held at 9 a.m. on a weekday.

“It would be nice if they came out here once in a while, with coffee and treats.”

“You would think it would be less expensive than sending flyers,” agrees 32-year-old Edith Alarcon, who said she only hears from council members at election time.

The Vernon Village residents’ comments come as city officials looks for ways to engage residents in a city where there are nearly 20 times as many businesses and warehouses as there are households.

For years, Vernon officials welcomed their anonymity, preferring to do their work out of the public eye, behind closed doors at City Hall. With just 100 actual residents, it wasn’t hard to do.

City officials visit students at Vernon Elementary School Monday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

City officials visit students at Vernon Elementary School Monday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

But the city says times have changed; the number of residents has doubled and Vernon’s new crop of leaders is working to involve residents through special events and other forms of outreach.

On Monday, there were signs the invisible wall that once divided City Hall and the rest of the community could be coming down, as public works employees walked across the street to Vernon Elementary where they made a science presentation to students.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

City staff visiting classrooms is becoming a regular thing, boasted City Manager Carlos Fandino.

Principal Diane Espino told EGP these types of interactions, which have included visits from firefighters and police officers, help create a partnership between the city and the people it serves.

“Most parents work in the city and these children are part of the city’s daytime population,” said Espino, who hopes businesses in the city will be inspired to also invest in the small school.

“Our community is so small, it’s important not just for the city to come out but for our neighboring businesses to get to know who we are,” she said.

Mayor Melissa Ybarra and Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez last year told EGP they would like to see more recreational and cultural opportunities in Vernon, but on Tuesday Ybarra admitted the goal is still “a work in progress.”

“There’s room for improvement,” acknowledges Ybarra. “There’s a lot of ideas here and we’re doing them now.”

In the meantime, residents of Vernon Village, located on the city border, a stone’s throw from Maywood, say they feel isolated from what’s going on across the city at Vernon City Hall.

It’s hard to feel like Vernon is it’s own community, observed Erika Sianez,

“It would help if the city hosted holiday events or activities for our children, just so we start to get to know who they are,” she suggested.

Ybarra understands and says the city plans to host three different events this summer at the housing complex.

Councilwoman Leticia Lopez assures the council is listening, as are the members of the various city commissions that advocate for residents, which they can join. She notes that residents can always write a letter or email councilmembers if they cannot make it to a meeting.

Vernon’s new council members and department heads truly care about the community, and that’s why the city has hired an in-house public information officer to help improve city outreach, according to Fandino, who added, “It takes time” to get it all done.

There are 86 registered voters in the city, and last month, it took a mere 23 voters to derail a proposed utility user tax, crimping the industrial city’s plan for shoring up its budget shortfall. Fourteen people voted in favor.

It was a disappointing outcome, considering city staff had descended on Vernon Village to register more voters, but only succeeded in adding 10 people to voter rolls.

“If we know what’s going on in the city and they know what’s going on here, it would make us want to vote,” suggests Sianez.

Fandino sees a silver lining: the utility tax failing is proof democracy works in a city that many once believed had too few residents to properly govern itself.

Vernon is adding new tools to make the city more accessible, including a new social media presence and an emergency opt-in communication alert system to be rolled out later this month.

Vernon Village property manager and resident, Merna Tovar, says she has witnessed city officials attempt to reach out to residents without great results, but told EGP she thinks that will change as city sponsored events and meetings become more regular and residents begin to feel more like neighbors.

“[Residents] will come to the meetings,” she predicted, but warned city officials, “Just don’t forget to bring the coffee.”

 

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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