The tiny city of Vernon is putting big money on its fight for survival in the state Capitol.
The scandal-tarred city, which is fighting a disincorporation bill, spent about $1.6 million on lobbying this year, according to new disclosure reports. That makes Vernon the state's sixth-biggest lobbying force this year, just slightly behind the California Chamber of Commerce and ahead of the League of California Cities.
Vernon employed several high-powered lobbying firms to oppose a bill by state Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, that would disband any city with fewer than 150 residents. Vernon, with 112 residents, is the only city that would be affected. The bill passed the Assembly in April and awaits a Senate vote.
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As part of a public relations blitz, Vernon launched TV ads in Sacramento, championing the industrial hub's pro-business climate. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce has argued that the bill would eliminate 11,000 jobs.
Fred MacFarlane, a media consultant hired by the city, said Vernon is "doing battle" in a "war" with the speaker, whose district includes Vernon.
"The city of Vernon has a right to defend itself and its existence," MacFarlane said. "This has never happened before. It is, in our mind, unconstitutional, and the city is going to make its case."
"Has the city wanted to have this expenditure for this purpose?" he added. "No. But the city was given no choice."
Pérez and his backers have argued that eliminating the city is the only way to end corruption there.
MacFarlane said the lobbying effort is paid with non-tax revenue generated by the city's investments and business activities. He said the city has been on "an aggressive path of reform," partially in response to the disincorporation bill. MacFarlane suggested that Pérez disclose the amount of resources his office has spent on the bill.
Pérez's press secretary John Vigna called the $1.6 million lobbying sum outrageous and characterized Vernon's approach as "say anything, do anything, spend any amount of money to protect the status quo."
"It’s very insulting to other cities that don’t have that kind of revenue and are making some very, very difficult decisions," Vigna said. "All of this glittery, very high-profile effort is just trying to distract from the fact that the corruption is still there."
Vernon has been buffeted by controversy in recent years. A longtime mayor was convicted of voter fraud. The Los Angeles Times found payments of more than $1 million to a former city administrator. Another high-paid administrator pleaded guilty to misusing public funds, and yet another pleaded guilty to corruption charges involving hiring his wife.
But Vernon has made serious strides in reform, including lowering city salaries, according to a report this week by John Van de Kamp. The former state attorney general was hired by the city to do an independent ethics review.
"Vernon, under pressure, has shown a willingness to tackle the two areas most in need of reform, i.e., compensation of Councilmembers and City officials, and its housing policies which have favored City officials and their relatives," the report states.
The report suggests further reforms, such as speeding up the salary reductions. Van de Kamp also noted that the city didn't negotiate reduced government rates with outside law firms. Van de Kamp singled out Vernon's contract with Latham & Watkins, which is part of the city's team working on the disincorporation bill.
"Their rates are high. They shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be anywhere near where they are," Van de Kamp said in an interview.
A Latham & Watkins spokesman declined to comment on the fees.
Van de Kamp also called the disincorporation effort "very problematic from a legal as well as a social standpoint."
"Do you kill the Legislature when you have corruption up there?" he said. "Do you just say, 'You’re all gone?' "
Van de Kamp noted that 105,000 jobs are dependent on Vernon.
"This is not a little farm community," he said. "There’s a lot at stake here for a lot of different businesses and people. It’s not just 112 residents."
|Lobbyist Employer||2011 Lobbying|
|CALIFORNIA TEACHERS ASSOCIATION||$5,340,299.78|
|WESTERN STATES PETROLEUM ASSOCIATION||$2,215,852.62|
|CALIFORNIA STATE COUNCIL OF SERVICE EMPLOYEES||$2,060,119.01|
|KAISER FOUNDATION HEALTH PLAN INC.||$1,938,287.29|
|CALIFORNIA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE||$1,594,975.48|
|CITY OF VERNON||$1,586,386.72|
|CHEVRON CORP. AND ITS SUBSIDIARIES||$1,456,472.27|
|CA HOSPITAL ASSN./CA ASSN. OF HOSPITALS AND HEALTH SYSTEMS||$1,298,600.86|
|CALIFORNIA MANUFACTURERS AND TECHNOLOGY ASSOCIATION||$1,274,653.02|
|LEAGUE OF CALIFORNIA CITIES||$1,152,206.63|
|HOWARD JARVIS TAXPAYERS ASSOCIATION||$1,147,732.80|
|AT&T INC. AND ITS AFFILIATES||$962,175.69|
|SEMPRA ENERGY/SAN DIEGO GAS & ELECTRIC CO./SOUTHERN CA GAS CO.||$894,357.21|
|CALIFORNIA WATER SERVICE CO.||$890,681.74|
|CALIFORNIA SCHOOL EMPLOYEES ASSOCIATION||$867,720.74|
|CITY OF LOS ANGELES||$813,326.94|
|CALIFORNIA BUILDING INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION||$749,645.64|
|COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES||$725,384.53|
|COUNTY OF ALAMEDA||$662,017.45|
Source: California secretary of state