By John Rogers
[Corruption is a menace not only to India but to the world's largest economy that is the United States of America.
India has its aggressive anti-corruption movement but here, in the US, there is no Anna Hazare to lead a peaceful, nationwide
and organized movement that has the Congress-led UPA government shaking. This is a shocking story of a tiny California city
with giant corruption.]
It was a landslide vote - if there can
be such a thing in a city where only 52 ballots were cast.
results sent a message that the 100 residents of the scandal-plagued city of Vernon [in California state of the United States
of America] overwhelmingly support reform measures aimed at ending years of corruption that saw the convictions of three top
officials, including a councilman who was living in a mansion in nearby Los Angeles and a former city manager who routinely
billed the city for golf outings, massages and a personal trainer.
vote came after state legislators - embarrassed by the six- and seven-figure salaries paid to officials to run the tiny town
where almost everybody lives dirt cheap in city owned housing - had threatened to take the unprecedented step of shutting
down city government if things didn't change.
Now they plan
to take a wait-and-see attitude as the city tries to take its first baby steps to dig itself out of the mess.
" think the important thing to note is that given the decades-long pattern
of corruption that has existed in that city, we have to be careful when everyone says they have fully reformed," said
John Vigna, press deputy for Assembly Speaker John Perez, who introduced the measure to take away Vernon's cityhood. "Several
steps still have to be taken to rebuild a sense of trust."
82-year-old Mayor of the city tucked into the Southern California sprawl was more optimistic.
"We're very happy with the way the vote went, it went the way we wanted, and I'm sure it's going to help the
city with things in the future," Mayor Hilario Gonzalez, who had steadfastly refused to speak to the media for months,
said this week during a brief interview on the front porch of his home.
Seventy percent of the city's 74 registered voters cast ballots Tuesday on the reform measures for the 5.2 square-mile
warren of warehouses, factories and railroad spurs where 55,000 people go to work each day doing everything from butchering
hogs to making designer jeans.
In the end, 43 people voted to
limit City Council members to two, five-year terms after some had served as long as five decades. Other measures, including
making it easier to fire the city manager, were passed unanimously.
town, everyone from loading-dock workers to residents and elected officials hailed the vote as signaling a new day for a city
that came within a handful of votes last summer of being shut down.
actually began to change two years ago as top officials were arrested for investigation of misappropriating public funds,
voter fraud and conflict of interest.
At the same time, word
surfaced in the media that a handful of people had essentially run Vernon for decades, serving on the City Council for decades,
rarely facing re-election challenges and paying the city's top administrators huge salaries. One former City Manager received
$1.6 million in 2008.
Council members, meanwhile, lived in city-owned
houses and apartments that rented for between $120 and $360 a month, while median rents in adjacent cities were hundreds of
Members of the Legislature told Vernon to clean
up its act or be wiped off the map by a disincorporation measure that appeared headed for approval until a key supporter,
state Sen. Kevin De Leon, proposed giving Vernon a last chance to change.
De Leon said at the time he feared that shutting down City Hall and handing over operations to Los Angeles County
might prompt some of Vernon's 1,800 businesses to leave, taking their share of the city's $334 million annual tax base with
Some companies did indeed threaten to hit the road while
acknowledging that even though Vernon has had its corruption problems, it has kept taxes low, provided excellent police
and fire protection and kept electricity rates low with its own power plant.
"A lot of cities and states are courting business these days. If they don't have an advantage in being here
they'll just leave," said Ari Manor, who manages La Villa Basque restaurant in the center of town.
The 51-year-old restaurant, with classic 1960s kitschy decor that gives it the
look of a Frank Sinatra movie, is a popular gathering spot with the city's movers and shakers.
It's owned by Leonis Malburg, grandson of one of Vernon's founders and a member of the City Council for more than
50 years until he resigned in 2009, shortly before being convicted of voter fraud.
While serving on the Council, prosecutors said, Malburg lived in a mansion in a wealthy section of Los Angeles, not
the modest condo next door to his restaurant that he listed as his official address.
Earlier this year, former Vernon City Manager Bruce Malkenhorst pleaded guilty to misappropriating public funds.
Prosecutors said that between 2000 and 2005, he billed the city thousands of dollars for golf outings, massages, a personal
trainer and a home security system.
Donal O'Callaghan, another
former City Manager, was convicted last month of conflict of interest in a case that involved arranging a job for his wife
with a Vernon business.
Still other corruption investigations
are under way, said Dave Demerjian, head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's public integrity office. He declined
The City Council itself has initiated a number
of reforms since the corruption scandal broke. It cut members' salaries from $56,000 to $25,000 a year; drastically reduced
the salaries of top officials; and created a commission to look into building more housing.
It also proposed selling city-owned homes, which officials recently acknowledged were maintained at a huge loss over
the years. The residences, scattered around town, are mainly rented to city officials, their friends and relatives.
Mayor Gonzales recently announced plans to retire after 37 years on the City Council.
Another seat will also be up for election next year.
Among those considering running is Mike Ybarra, a retired engineer
and lifelong resident.
Ybarra, whose family has lived in Vernon
since the 1890s and who owns one of the last private homes, said he was delighted to see the reforms pass and anxious to implement
more changes in a city he loves.
"The city is changing
and I'd like to be part of the change," he said. "And hopefully this time they'll be more than two people running
for the two seats."
[John Rogers wrote this report for
the Associated Press.]