Thursday, April 13, 2006

Truth is Stranger that Fiction

You might think that this sort of thing happens in third-world emerging democracies where the outgoing despots need time to adjust to their loss of unchecked power -- but this is the story just miles from downtown Los Angeles.

At a time when many cities struggle with voter participation, the tiny town of Vernon has seen its number of voters rise by about 50% in the last couple of months.

And that is adding to suspicions as voters in the industrial community south of downtown Los Angeles go to the polls Tuesday for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Vernon's official population is 91. But the number of registered voters has shot up from less than 60 to 86. About a dozen people registered in the weeks leading up to the March 27 deadline for Tuesday's election, the city's first in 25 years. The election pits three challengers who moved into town earlier this year against longtime incumbents — Mayor Leonis Malburg, Mayor Pro Tem Thomas A. Ybarra, and Councilman W. Michael McCormick — who have ruled Vernon for up to 50 years.

Sound like democracy is once again raising its proud head in Vernon? Er, not quite. But before we move on, you might ask yourself, what could possibly be worth fighting for in a sleepy little town of 100 people, hard by the railroad tracks?

The stakes of the election are high: whoever wins steers a city with more than $100 million in cash and investments, more than double its general operating budget.

One hundred million reasons to excite a surge in patriotism! Let's take a look at these patriotic souls. First, the incumbent Mayor:

This is Mayor Leonis Malburg, born to the City of Vernon as the grandson of founding father, John B. Leonis. Malburg joined the City Council in 1956 and has served continuously ever since. He became mayor in 1974 and has never had an opponent! He must be doing a heck of a job.

What does Malburg's kingdom control? The city's motto, "Exclusively Industrial," might suggest that its $100 million hoard derived from sagacious courting of fortune 500 interests and the like. Not so. It was once home to Doyle's, "the longest bar in the world" (it had 37 bartenders, 37 cash registers and a sign advising "if your children need shoes, don't buy booze"). Last call for Doyle's Bar was June 30, 1919 when over 1,000 people swilled their last pre-Prohibition drink. Then came the stockyards, slaughterhouses (one owned by Malburg's grandfather) and meatpacking plants. Today?

"Today smaller industrial/commercial establishments including fashion design, garment-making, film production, electronics, and waste recycling are characteristic of the business community in Vernon."

Pornography, sweat shops and garbage.

Who would want to take on this sturdy juggernaut?

In early January, eight people took up residence in a boxy commercial building. Within days, three of the newcomers filed petitions to run for City Council.

Almost immediately they 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 would-be office-seekers.

The newcomers were accused of being part of a takeover plot by Albert Robles, a convicted felon who as treasurer of nearby South Gate nearly bankrupted that city.

Cris Summers, who secured the housing for the eight people, is a disbarred attorney and a friend of Robles.

Sounds like formidable opposition. How could Leonid and his band be concerned about a fair election against such riff raff?

Best not to leave anything to chance, so he thought"

The eight residents' voter registrations were rescinded, and the incumbents voted to cancel the election and reelect themselves.

Now that's a neat trick. It even beats the tactics used the last time there was someone brassy enough to throw his hat in the ring.

The last time there was an election in Vernon, in 1980, the town's retired police chief, Spence E. Hogan, declared himself a candidate. He was quickly evicted from his city-owned home.

Hogan moved in with Philip Reavis, then president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, and they both ran for office. Hogan won the vote count but lost the election after the then-city administrator, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., disqualified six ballots.

I swear -- I've lived in Boston for almost 30 years and I thought I'd seen some bare knickles politics. But this beats the band.

UPDATE: When I reported my finding to my colleague next door, he said "what do you bet these guys are Republicans?" (He's a liberal zealot, you see). I did not take him up on the bet, and it's a good thing, because it appears that every living being within the Vernon city limits is a contributor to the NRCC. They do seem to take care of their predominently Democratic congressional delegation, however. Heh heh.

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