Man, what a fucked up little town this Vernon, California is:
It began in January, when eight people took up residence in a boxy commercial building. Within days, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council, challenging incumbents who have been in office for up to 50 years.
Almost immediately, the challengers began to be followed by private investigators, and utility crews turned off their power. The building they shared was red-tagged by inspectors. Eventually, police and other officials drilled holes in the locks of the property and evicted the office-seekers.
The city accused the newcomers of being part of a takeover plot by Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of nearby South Gate nearly bankrupted that city. The eight residents’ voter registrations were rescinded, and the incumbents voted to cancel the election and reelect themselves. But a judge ruled that officials had acted illegally and reinstated the election.
Since then, both sides have accused the other of misconduct. Vernon has fewer than 100 residents, but it has seen a 50% surge in its election rolls in recent weeks. Both sides accuse the other of bringing in ringers to vote in Tuesday’s election.
On election night, the city clerk abruptly decided not to count the ballots until various legal challenges were settled.
I’ve read some previous articles about Vernon (population: 91), and it sounds like something out of Dukes of Hazzard or something. The mayor, the whole city council, and all the city jobs in the town are controlled by a single family, the family that founded the town over a hundred years ago. This has led to rampant corruption as a mafia-style government grew up and began looking at outsiders as enemies. From it’s founding early last century the town has been a magnet for controversy and corruption:
Its founder, a charismatic Basque immigrant named John Baptiste Leonis, had seen the rapid development of land north and west of downtown Los Angeles. But he saw money to be made in the other direction, on land then held by Chinese and Mexican farmers.
The area had a dirt road running to Los Angeles Harbor and multiple rail lines. So, in 1905, Leonis and two local ranchers incorporated the “exclusively industrial” city, characterized as the first town west of the Mississippi devoted to manufacturing. This remains almost literally true: The city currently has fewer than 100 residents.
A powerful voice on the town’s Board of Trustees, Leonis initially promoted activities that other jurisdictions spurned: gambling, prizefighting and drinking. He leased land to a saloon owner who opened the “longest bar in the world.” On one side was a boxing stadium; on the other, a baseball stadium.
In the 1920s, thousands of workers began streaming in to work at new factories built by Bethlehem and U.S. Steel, Alcoa Aluminum and at the kill plants along Meat Packers Row.
Leonis was at the center of the financial action, operating the town bank, a large stockyard and a feed mill, and he was already drawing flak from critics who complained that he acted like the king of Vernon.
In 1925, The Times did its first front-page expose of Vernon. The paper quoted one foe as saying of Leonis: “In that town, you do not file papers at the City Hall. You simply hand them to John and he puts them in his pocket. If he is in favor of the proposition, it goes through; if he is opposed, that’s the last you hear of it.”
Two decades later, a county grand jury launched a wide-ranging corruption probe that led to Leonis, who by then had become mayor, and five other top officials being indicted on charges of voter fraud.
Prosecutors called Leonis a “boss” who ruled like a feudal lord. They also alleged that he lived not in Vernon but in a spacious home in Hancock Park. Charges against Leonis were dropped, but four other people were convicted, including the police and fire chiefs.
By the time Leonis died in 1953, he had amassed an estate reportedly worth $8 million. The inheritance went to his grandson, Leonis Malburg, who as a boy hunted doves with a BB gun at the family stockyards and took his first job as a messenger at his grandfather’s bank.
For the last 50 years, Malburg has served on the City Council of Vernon, frequently as mayor.
“Vernon is arguably the oldest continuous political machine in the country,” said Mike Davis, a professor of history at UC Irvine and author of several books about Southern California. “There is a continuity of power and rule in this private city that I’m not sure you’ll find anywhere else you go in the United States.”
This is really amazing. I’ve seen a lot of movies about “company towns” or towns utterly controlled by a corrupt mayor and they’ve stayed somewhere back in my subconscious all these years. Isn’t it nice to know that it’s based in reality? I suppose it’s comforting to know I was learning something.
At any rate, it’s not a huge deal nationally. It’s just a little podunk town with a shitty government and nothing to offer anybody. But I think it’s useful as a microcosm for corruption, and the nature of human greed. It seems to evolve naturally, almost inevitably. It grows to a certain size, but after a certain point it starts driving people away. Vernon used to be a lot larger than it is today. If you don’t buy into the oligarchy, then you’re gonna find life very tough in town. But look at what they rule over: a shitty old town with less than a hundred residents with no geographic or political significance (except corruption) to anyone. Does that bother the lords of the town? Not one bit. They’d rather be master of Vernon than a peasant in Los Angeles.
Looking at how these assholes fight over a shitty nothing-town like Vernon, you’ve gotta wonder about how desperately people crave the real power of Washington, D.C. The pigs fight over the tax-dollar-trough with an inhuman tenacity, and that should come as no surprise to any of us. It’s human nature, or so it seems.
I think it’s time to take a look at what we’ve learned about the human lust for power and remake our government in that image. We need additional controls in place to ensure that another crew like the Bush cabal never rises to power.
…Assuming we can ever manage to get rid of them. I imagine it’ll be something like running for mayor of Vernon.