City of Industry, in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, might be the most industrial place in the United States. Other industrial municipalities get more attention from urban planners and policymakers: the refiners of Houston and Texas City, the faded steel mills of Gary, Indiana, or the Gigafactory complex in Story County, Nevada just outside of Reno, to name a few. But Industry stands apart with its 92% industrial zoning, but a mere 202 legal residents in 2019. The population has plummeted from a high of around 800 in 2005. As the population has fallen, Industry’s politics have become increasingly captured by private interests. Every resident lives in reduced-cost housing owned by the city or by the powerful Perez family, who own land and a waste disposal company in Industry.

Signs of trouble first surfaced in the local press around 2015. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports that Industry uses its highly-subsidized public housing to reward allies. Over a third of the city’s population moved out after the contested 2015 City Council election. Virtually all of those that left were tenants in city housing.

City Manager Paul Phillips told reporters that the evictions were intended to prevent conflicts of interest related to renting housing to city employees. He himself was ousted in 2018 due to a different conflict about housing. Further evictions took place between 2018 and 2019, bringing the eviction total to half of the 28 homes owned by the city.

Text messages reported by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune indicate that Mayor Mark Radecki arranged for his friend Mary Marcucci to move into city housing in 2016. She subsequently ran unopposed for City Council but ran afoul of Radecki when she questioned a doubling of the city’s public housing in 2017, fearing it would give Radecki, Councilman Abraham Cruz and consultant, Frank Hill undue influence over potential voters. Hill, formerly the state representative for the area was removed from office in 1994 for corruption but managed to exempt Industry from state affordable housing requirements during his time in office. He pushed forward a $20 million solar project on land owned by the city between Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, which ultimately was not constructed.

At the end of July 2020, Abraham Cruz, one of Industry’s five elected city councilors was removed from office in a recall election.  Only a few dozen voters turned out, with a 100% vote to remove him, replacing him with Michael Greubel, a former city planning official. The recall started in April with signatures from one-third of the population, a mere 45 voters. Cruz, initially appointed rather than elected to the Industry City Council, was censured by his fellow councilors in September 2019 for meeting with former City Manager Paul Philips and former state Senator Frank Hill. The City Council’s official line indicates that Cruz violated California’s Brown Act, revealing confidential information about the city’s legal activities, but Cruz denies the accusations saying that he did not share confidential information, in connection with a slew of lawsuits around the solar farm project. After news of the recall surfaced, Cruz told local reporters that he expected to be served an eviction notice once he was voted out, because of the recent pattern of politically motivated evictions.

Industry’s strange dealings and civil war between different factions of developers and city officials raise questions about the hazards of a small electorate and a tightly controlled housing supply. Plenty of small towns and counties across America are havens of direct democracy, with tiny populations highly-involved in community government. But Industry’s tiny electorate and municipal structure suggest it may serve private interests more than public interests.

Municipal corporations are usually seen as open, public entities that allow people to come and go to live and work. Yet incorporated oddities abound. Hidden Hills, California, for instance, is an incorporated city and gated community of 1900 people in northern Los Angeles County, home to wealthy A-list celebrities that is completely closed to the general public. Frye Island, incorporated in 1998 in southern Maine’s Sebago Lake attracts more middle-class residents but is open only half the year during the summer months, attracting residents who are essentially “dual citizens” with year-round communities elsewhere.

Few rules other than custom govern what can and can’t be an incorporated community in the US, but a reigning assumption is that incorporated communities must be beholden to voters who actually live there—even if others are excluded or live there only part of the year. City of Industry may represent a unique form of captured municipal government. What can or should states do about this type of municipal capture?

California’s Attorney General could take the lead on investigating violations of the famous Brown Act, passed in 1953, which mandates open meetings of municipal bodies throughout the state, ensuring that city governments are not making decisions secretly and without consideration of the public interest. Additionally, state officials might launch an investigation of misuse of public housing in Industry.

Nationwide, state governments have proven reluctant to intervene in the affairs of incorporated cities. California made no attempt to intervene during the 2012 municipal bankruptcies of Stockton and San Bernardino, while Alabama’s government did not pursue state involvement during the bankruptcy of its largest county in 2011. Nevertheless, local governments are created through the sovereign powers of state government and while municipal governments must be allowed broad-leeway to make local policy they must remain within the bounds of state and federal law, committed to serving their citizens.

The author reached out to Abraham Cruz for comment.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not reflect those of SALPAL or Georgetown University.