In the first 115 years of its history, the tiny manufacturing town of Vernon never needed a recall election to settle its political grievances. This year, however, amid contentious allegations of corruption, the town will have two.

During a special election Tuesday, June 1, voters ousted City Council members Carol Menke and Diana Gonzales, both of whom entered office in 2019. And two other council members are in the recall cross hairs for an election already scheduled for September. Only Mayor Leticia Lopez, who won re-election in April, is not subject to removal.

“It went pretty much as expected,” Menke said of the election, where nearly 73% of voters favored her recall. “I’m disappointed, but not surprised.”

Two newcomers, Judith Merlo and Crystal Larios, will replace Gonzales and Menke, respectively, according to unofficial election results.

The City Council split into two factions earlier this year amid the political strife that spawned recall campaigns against both sides. The two efforts were launched so close together that proponents of the first recall found themselves answering questions about the second while knocking on doors, according to Marisa Olguin, the president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce and a proponent of the recall against Menke and Gonzales.

The supporters of that campaign declared victory following last week’s election and are now transitioning to defend council members William Davis and Melissa Ybarra from the same fate during the recall election scheduled for Sept. 14.

“It’s been a tumultuous year,” Olguin said.

Vernon, with a population of roughly 130, is the least populous incorporated city in the state. Yet, it punches significantly above its weight, with a nearly $300 million budget between the city and its public utility, thanks to its unrelenting support of the factories, manufacturers and industrial businesses that other cities — and their larger residential populations — would typically avoid.

Mayor helped initiate recall election

Lopez, Davis, Ybarra, two former mayors and the chamber of commerce backed the recall against Menke and Gonzales over their support for a solar and wind project on city-owned land in the Mojave Desert that was proposed by developers accused of stealing $20 million from the nearby City of Industry. The recall’s proponents alleged Menke and Gonzales tried to push through the energy contracts, despite the public controversy in Industry, and later attempted to support allies of the developers seeking city housing and a contract for city attorney, according to Olguin and Lopez.

Past studies had long concluded “a viable project on the city’s Jaw Bone property does not exist,” according to a staff report. Still, the developers, led by former state Sen. Frank Hill and developer William Barkett, claimed they could make it work, despite warnings about environmental roadblocks from nesting birds and potential American Indian artifacts, according to Lopez, who helped initiate the recall of Menke and Gonzales.

“These developers had nothing to show, they were bad players that were already having issues in the City of Industry for the same type of situation,” she said.

Didn’t do ‘anything wrong’

Both Menke and Gonzales deny exerting any influence over the matters. The City Council voted 3-2, with Menke and Gonzales in dissent, not to move forward with the Mojave Desert project last summer. Menke said she was aware of a dispute between Industry and the developer, but she did not know about the district attorney’s criminal investigation until investigators raided the homes and offices of the company’s owners in November, months after the project had been shot down by her colleagues.

Menke said she brought an idea for the unused land to the city administrator, but the other members of the council ultimately rejected it. Nothing about the process was unusual for city councils, she said.

“Maybe I picked the wrong person, I’m not clairvoyant,” Menke said of the developers. “I still don’t believe we did anything wrong.”

Menke and Gonzales insist the true reason for their ouster is their efforts to question why a disproportionate amount of housing in recent years has gone to the family and friends of Mayor Lopez. They fear the lottery system used to determine who gets city housing is being manipulated to favor certain people.

“That’s not supposed to happen in Vernon,” Gonzales said in an interview. The recall’s supporters twisted the development deal and other matters, such as Gonzales’ request for a bathtub with water jets in her city-owned rental during a remodel, to make her and Menke look corrupt, Gonzales said. Her house was one of the last in line to be remodeled by the city and she offered to pay the difference for a better feature, she said.

Fliers circulated accusing her of trying to get the city to pay for a Jacuzzi, she said.

Mayor: No special treatment

Lopez denied that her family got any special treatment in the housing program. She said her former colleagues have assumed she is related to other residents based on her and her husband having common last names. She acknowledged she is a longtime acquaintance of Merlo, one of the new council members, because their sons used to play basketball together, but she denied having any influence over Merlo’s decision to run for office.

Lopez said the recall against Davis and Ybarra is retaliation and its allegations are baseless.

That recall petition, signed by more than 40 residents, including Menke and Gonzales, alleges Davis, 81, “lacks the mental competence” to serve on the council and accuses Ybarra of nepotism and favoritism in her secondary role as a housing commissioner. Ybarra, who lives in one of the only privately owned homes in the city, and her sister serve on the seven-member Vernon Housing Commission, a panel that rents out the roughly two dozen homes owned by the city government through the lottery system.

Menke served on the housing commission for two years until her election to the council in 2019. The mayor previously appointed all seven members, but that was changed to a vote of the full council in February.

The commission is meant to provide impartial oversight over the city-owned rentals that previous administrations reportedly manipulated to keep the same families in power. Vernon implemented a series of sweeping reforms, including the changes to housing, starting in 2011 to avoid disincorporation from the state Legislature. Today, about a third of the city’s homes are still owned by Vernon and controlled by the commission, while the rest are managed by an independent third party. City officials want to build additional independent housing and retail for residents, if they can find the space for it in the built-out city, according to Olguin.

Both sides in the recall battles have accused the other of trying to improperly influence voters in the independent 45-unit Vernon Village Park Apartments, the city’s largest voting bloc.

Vernon Council member Melissa Ybarra (Courtesy of city of Vernon)

Davis could not be reached for comment. Olguin and Lopez described the allegations against Davis as “ageism” and denied he is incapable of acting in his role.

Ybarra: ‘Support transparency’

Separately, Ybarra issued a statement broadly denying the second recall’s allegations against her.

“Sadly, Diana Gonzales and Carol Menke have resorted to orchestrating a campaign against me, because I chose to support transparency and clean government and rejected their attempt to bring corruption to our beloved Vernon,” she stated.

“I trust the people of Vernon. They know the difference between right and wrong, and they showed it when they voted to remove Gonzales and Menke from office. They know I have their backs, and, on Election Day, I know they will have mine.”

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