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A Poltical Tempest in an L.A.-Area Industrial City

City-owned homes on Furlong Place butt up against Vernon City Hall. Rents on the street start at $204.75 and top out at $236.25.
Ina Jaffe, NPR
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City-owned homes on Furlong Place butt up against Vernon City Hall. Rents on the street start at $204.75 and top out at $236.25.
Don Huff and seven others lived in the converted industrial building in the background, but were evicted by the city.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
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Don Huff and seven others lived in the converted industrial building in the background, but were evicted by the city.
An attorney for Don Huff alleges the mayor of Vernon actually lives in this house in Los Angeles, in violation of city rules.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
/
An attorney for Don Huff alleges the mayor of Vernon actually lives in this house in Los Angeles, in violation of city rules.

The industrial city of Vernon is just a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, but politically, it's a world apart. The city's government has long been controlled by just a couple of families, and at one time went more than 25 years without an election.

The reason? An estimated 44,000 people work there, but less than 100 people call it home. The city itself owns almost all the houses, and documents show the city rents them out mostly to city workers, some units for as little as $147 a month.

The current mayor, Leonis Malburg, is the grandson of one of Vernon's founders. He's been on the city council since the 1950s. And Vernon's top elections official, Bruce Malkenhorst Jr.,. is the son of the former city administrator.

Don Huff, a paper salesman who once lived in a converted industrial building within city limits with seven other roommates, had the temerity to run for city office himself. He and two of his roommates decided to challenge three incumbents on the Vernon City Council.

In late January, he and his roommates were all evicted by the city because of alleged zoning and code violations. Huff now sleeps in his SUV and showers and shaves at the gym. He also says he is relentlessly tailed by private security.

A judge had to order Vernon to hold an election, but even that has been mired in controversy: When polls closed on April 11, Malkenhorst seized the ballots and declared there would be no vote-count due to pending litigation.

An attorney for Huff counters that the mayor of Vernon doesn't even live in his own city. Instead, Malburg lives in the upscale Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, dozens of miles away.

It may all add up to a tempest in a teapot, but it's a very wealthy teapot. The city reportedly controls a $100 million investment portfolio. So the battle for Vernon continues.

There are more lawsuits pending, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office is looking into whether city officials misappropriated funds. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is also investigating the Vernon Police Department, and a state lawmaker is introducing legislation to revoke Vernon's right to oversee its own elections.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."