MELISSA BLOCK, host:
We now take you to a place where the government has long been controlled by just a couple of families, a place that went more than 25 years without an election. It's the small industrial city of Vernon, California, just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles. The city of Vernon is now headed to court in a showdown where a few people are trying to change the status quo. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.
INA JAFFE reporting:
Vernon's not a bad little town, if you like factories, warehouses and lots of big trucks. Forty-four thousand people work here, but fewer than 100 people call it home. A paper salesman named Don Huff has gone through a lot to be one of them.
Mr. DON HUFF (Resident, Vernon, California): At first, I just wanted a decent home in the city of Vernon for cheap rent.
JAFFE: Huff stands outside the beige box of a building he used to share with seven other people. It sits along a trash-strewn railroad track. There are warehouses as far as the eye can see.
Mr. HUFF: The outside is kind of deceiving, but inside it's a really nice place.
JAFFE: Huff and his housemates were all evicted by the city because of alleged zoning and code violations. That was in late January, after Huff and two other newcomers decided to challenge three incumbents on the Vernon City Council.
Mr. HUFF: That Friday that we filled our papers, Saturday they started a mess with this. Martin Luther King's birthday on a Monday, they came out climbing this pole right here. I said, excuse me, what are you guys doing? In ten minutes we're up here cutting your power, you know. And I said, well who said that? The city of Vernon, sir, I'm just doing my job.
JAFFE: Huff now sleeps in his Chevy Trailblazer. He showers and shaves at the gym. Worse, he describes being relentlessly tailed by private security.
Mr. HUFF: They follow us everywhere. They follow me at the mall. I go into Denny's Restaurant. They'll follow me into Denny's Restaurant to see who am I talking to. They'll sit out in the parking lot until I drive away and they'll follow me some more.
JAFFE: In fact, two private investigators have been arrested in nearby towns for allegedly pulling guns on some of Huff's friends. The city of Vernon is not used to outsiders. That's because there's almost no place for them to live. The city owns almost all the houses. Documents show they rent them out, mostly to city workers, 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 a son of the former city administrator. A judge had to order Vernon to hold an election. On April 11th, when the polls closed, attorney Albert Robles, who represents the challengers, confronted Malkenhorst.
Mr. ALBERT ROBLES (Attorney, Vernon, California): I asked the elections official if he could at least explain to us how he proposed to start counting the ballots. And at that point he said that he was not going to count the ballots because there was pending litigation with respect to the voters.
JAFFE: Malkenhorst has not returned numerous calls from NPR seeking comment. Neither has Vernon's attorney. The ballots still have not been counted. How and when and if they're counted could depend on the outcome of the current court case. Vernon's suit contends that the voter registrations of Don Huff and his housemates are invalid. But two can play that game. This week, attorney Albert Robles held a news conference in the posh Hancock Park section of Los Angeles. He was standing in front of an elegant six-bedroom home. Records show the owner is Leonis Malburg, the mayor of Vernon. Robles says it's where he really lives.
Mr. ROBLES: We allege that it's illegal for him to be the mayor of Vernon and reside here in Hancock Park.
JAFFE: The mayor did not return calls seeking comment. Robles said that he and his clients were also challenging the registrations of most of the voters in Vernon.
Mr. ROBLES: Alleging that they're illegally being induced to vote for the incumbents, or, if you will, bribed by being provided subsidized housing, employment and raises.
JAFFE: This may be a tempest in a teapot, but it's a very wealthy teapot. The city reportedly controls a $100 million nest egg. So the battle for Vernon continues. There are around half a dozen pending lawsuits, investigations by both the district attorney and the L.A. County sheriff, and a bill in the state legislature to revoke Vernon's right to oversee its own elections. Which means we're going to be hearing a lot about this little town that hardly anybody's ever heard of.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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