A $100m Tempest in a 5.2mi² Teapot
December 10, 2009 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Vernon, California, a tiny city in Los Angeles county, was the personal fiefdom of one family for over 100 years. That all came to an end with the conviction of the town's long-serving mayor, and his wife, for voter fraud.

An "exclusively industrial" enclave, Vernon is home to only 91 residents, but employs 44,000 people. The town was founded in 1906 by John Baptiste Leonis, who presided as mayor even as allegations abounded that he did not actually live in the city, instead maintaining a lavish residence in Hancock Park. Those same allegations would ultimately drive his grandson, Leonis C. Malburg, who had served in city government since 1956 and as mayor since 1974, out of office. Investigation of the Vernon apartment in which the family claimed to live turned up mattresses still wrapped in plastic, a lack of hot water and toilet paper...and evidence that led to the conviction of Malburg's son, John Malburg, a dean of students at Daniel Murphy Catholic High School, for sexual abuse of minors.

Prior to April 2006, Vernon had not had an election in over 25 years. That election was preceded by a surge in voter registration which city officials claimed was part of an attempted power grab by outsiders from neighboring South Gate. The results of the vote, in which new candidates attempted to unseat long-unchallenged city officials, were seized and kept under lock and key by the sitting City Clerk until county and state officials intervened.

Following the elder Malburg's conviction, the prosecutor noted:
"The concept that a city ought to have residents and those residents ought to be able to determine their leaders, that's a basic democratic principle and Vernon doesn't embody that principle," Huntsman said. "That's not going to change as a result of today's verdict."
The fate of La Villa Basque, a startlingly well-preserved mid-century diner owned by Malburg, remains to be seen.
posted by anazgnos (18 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by cisko at 12:03 PM on December 10, 2009

Gosh. I used to work in Cudahy. I had no idea.
posted by Danf at 12:05 PM on December 10, 2009

Forget it, Jake. It's Vernon.
posted by the painkiller at 12:38 PM on December 10, 2009 [9 favorites]

They had that town all locked up until the Road House brought in a new bouncer with a background in philosophy from NYU.
posted by mattholomew at 1:22 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

OK. So now that we've taken care of that derail....

Here's another Vernon-related previous Metafilter post, this one about the rather remarkably mural-festooned Farmer John hog processing plant there.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:04 PM on December 10, 2009

Vernon is loaded with meat packing plants. When I worked there in the 70's, there was a rhythm to the week. On Mondays, the cattle trucks came in with their loads of bouef-on-the-houef. Sometimes a load of cows would escape and the crack Vernon motorcycle cops (only cops I ever saw with shotgun scabbards on their bikes) would do a modern day round-up. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the cattle were killed and butchered. Thursdays were the worst; on Thursdays the carcasses were boiled down and rendered into gelatin and whatnot. The smell would clog the back of your throat. Fridays were clean-up and ship days and following week it started over again. Other nearby odoriferous attractions included Bandini Mountain (an enormous pile of cow manure) and several leather tanneries.
posted by Standeck at 3:07 PM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Not to further the derail, but I've generally taken the 'previously' comments as a way to say, "Hey, here's a previous post where you can find more information relevant to this one." I always thought it was meant to be helpful, at least in general.

I too think this is a great post. Thanks!
posted by Brak at 3:18 PM on December 10, 2009

They call that a "french restaurant"?
posted by Lleyam at 3:46 PM on December 10, 2009

Mod note: Bunch of comments removed. If folks want to discuss the etiquette and implications of "previously" links, doubles, etc that's totally okay but it needs to happen on Metatalk if it's going to be a discussion.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:13 PM on December 10, 2009

I love those pictures of La Villa Basque. I think the pictures are relatively new, but the place looks so crazily trapped in the 70's. I totally want to go there. Where else can you get a two can tuna sandwich (or as Lleyam might know it, the salad nicoise en baguette) and tea served in a glass in a bowl?
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 4:52 PM on December 10, 2009

i wish they had more about the opposition to the now toppled power structure. the articles in this post, didn't read the 'previously' links, WHOOPS! sorry! didn't really elaborate on that at all.

i grew up in a small town (village, actually) with about 2.5 times the population on 1/10th of the land mass. the kind of place where you don't just know your neighbors, you know *everybody*, and you know most of everybody's business, too. the mayor isn't some guy you see on television, he's the guy you see at the post office or the grocery store or walking his dog down the street. and you know his brothers, his sisters, his mama & papa & kids & grandkids & the names & ancestry of his pets. for the most part--at least where i come from--the status quo is simply the way it is. sure, the rules might be bent but, goodness! that's the way it's always been & we're doing fine, thank you very much.

i guess what i'm trying to say is that i'm not a bit surprised that it took them forever to oust the ruling dynasty. i wouldn't be a bit surprised if there isn't a good part of that town that things they done ole leonis malburg wrong.
posted by msconduct at 4:56 PM on December 10, 2009

i guess what i'm trying to say is that i'm not a bit surprised that it took them forever to oust the ruling dynasty. i wouldn't be a bit surprised if there isn't a good part of that town that things they done ole leonis malburg wrong.

I think you might be misapprehending (msapprehending?) exactly what Vernon is. It's an administrative district in the industrial core of Los Angeles, surrounded by the 110, 10, 5, and 710 freeways, not incorporated into the city due only to the quirks of history and the caprices of water rights. No one actually lives there. Of that 91-person population, who knows how many actually occupy real residences in the "city"?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:24 PM on December 10, 2009

Now, see, if they had a local paper, none of this would have happened....

But seriously, is there an explanation as to why all these other folks were suddenly registering and running for government?

Was it just to get their hands on the $100 million in cash/investments?

Was it a local activist who got a bee in his bonnet?

Is Hilario “Larry” Gonzales just as corrupt?
posted by madajb at 5:26 PM on December 10, 2009

i'd be surprised if i'm msapprehending thanks, i like that the fact that power is power & that there's a lot of money there. and as long as the residents are benefiting from that money & they don't have their respective apple carts upset, no one really cares.

in my hometown--at least when i lived there--everyone who lived there could work for the village if they didn't have another option. everyone. they hired every kid of legal age in the summer to do everything from paint curbs to work at the swimming pool. adults 'work on the town,' i.e., collect garbage, keep the municipal building tidy, cut grass & whatever else it takes to keep a tiny town running & in order. the last time they paved the streets (there are two that run the length of the town & six that intersect those), they also paved everyone's driveway. they shovel snow off the sidewalks of the elderly & the infirm. if you miss the annual christmas party, santa clause comes to your house with your little goodie basket of candy because you weren't there to pick it up. the town takes care of its own, but that kind of care demands loyalty in return. there were PLENTY of allegations about mismanagement, but it all came down to: that mayor, he's a good guy. he's kept [dad] [uncle albert] [aunt fanny] [whoever] working so they can keep a roof over their heads & food on the table. it's a boat that those in it don't want to rock.

ergo: i'm also not surprised that it took out-of-towners moving into town to challenge the paradigm. my guess is that their reasoning was anything but altruistic.
posted by msconduct at 5:58 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

But seriously, is there an explanation as to why all these other folks were suddenly registering and running for government?

via nytimes:
Although Judge Muñoz ruled against Vernon, he agreed with city officials that the newcomers were trying to gain power. He cited the youth and the lack of education and employment of most of them, but rejected the city’s attempt to cancel their voter registrations, saying in court that “power grabs aren’t illegal.”
Of that 91-person population, who knows how many actually occupy real residences in the "city"?

from latimes:
The Malburgs' grip on power in Vernon endured because the city offered generous perks to residents and provided a business-friendly environment for employers. Most of the town's roughly 100 residents work for the city or are family members of city employees, dependent on Vernon officials for their income. Most also live in city-owned homes.
from npr:
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.
posted by anazgnos at 8:03 PM on December 10, 2009

Here's a Google Street View of the houses on Furlong Place. There's a decent-looking school and some more nice residences across the street.

$230 rents would be crazy in a midsize Midwest city. In LA, I can't even imagine. That would keep a lot of people very very loyal, I should think.
posted by cisko at 9:56 PM on December 10, 2009

Not to be confused with Vernon, Florida?

Maybe they can be sister cities, if properly introduced?
posted by Graygorey at 10:02 PM on December 10, 2009

My girlfriend and I made a pilgrimage to La Villa Basque a few months ago and had an enjoyably surreal meal. Our waitress had worked there for 37 years. On the way out, we chatted with a twinkling, friendly elderly man and his wife at a nearby table. They told us about how packed the place was 50 years ago. It was Leonis Malburg and his wife. We talked for about ten minutes and he told us about the history of the city of of the basque people in California. I was very aware of their legal situation at the time but didn't bring it up.

After that, I read everything I could about the politics of Vernon and became obsessed with housing in the city. I scoured Google Earth for small buildings, looking for every possible residence. Then I discovered every residence listed in this city report:

There are only 31 dwellings in the city, and all but 5 are owned by the City and rented to city employees for $150-$250 a month. There are 20 houses, plus an 8 unit apartment complex. Of the 5 privately owned dwellings, only two are privately owned physical houses (listed as having three mailing addresses), one apartment above La Villa Basque (rented free to Malburgs nephew), and Leonis Malburg's cot in his office (listed fraudulently as his residence - in the Leonis Malburg Building, on Leonis Boulevard!)

I recently went back to Vernon with the intention of finding every house in the city in person. I was obviously out of place in my convertible and was immediately (literally within 5 minutes of entering city limits) pulled over by Vernon PD, who just wanted to check me out. Makes a fella feel right at home.
posted by scottjlowe at 3:34 AM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

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