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City of Bell Corruption

Unanimous fury: "I'm so disgusted," cried out one mother.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

View more photos in Ted Soqui's slideshow, "Disgusted! Residents Furious Over Bell City Council Corruption."

And don't miss our 2009 story, "How L.A. City Council Got Those Huge $178,789 Salaries."

The residents of Bell shook fingers and fists, their faces flush with vituperation, as they shouted about an unfair tax burden and the corrupt cabal that had infected their local government.

The elected officials, meanwhile, sat passively, like children being scolded, which only infuriated the crowd even more.

Perhaps this sounds like a Tea Party uprising at a health-care town hall in that summer of rage, 2009. 

Indeed, that is what the Bell City Council meeting this week resembled, except that the crowd and the council were nearly all Latino, with half the residents shouting in Spanish.

A dozen TV cameras, from Inside Edition to all the local affiliates, lined the wall of the city's community center, while at least a dozen cops stood stone-faced.

"You guys should be ashamed!" Flora Carlos shouted. "My dad makes minimum wage. He works under the sun, carrying heavy loads. My dad suffers so you can sit and work a part-time job!"

If anything, their anger seemed more justified than that typically heard from mostly white and upper-middle-class Tea Partiers.

In this city of fewer than 40,000 — 90 percent Latino, with an income well below the national average — the tiny political class took advantage of the residents' lack of civic engagement to create a slop-filled public trough for elites while cutting services and laying off workers.

Thanks to the Los Angeles Times, the public learned that city manager Robert Rizzo was making nearly $800,000, or twice that of the president of the United States, while his deputy was paid $376,000. Police Chief Randy Adams was pulling in $457,000, 50 percent more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. Since the exposé last week, they've all resigned.

The City Council (including the mayor), meanwhile, was quietly paying itself nearly $100,000 per year for what are part-time jobs.

Councilman Luis Artiga, a minister, was appointed to fill an unfinished term and said he had no idea what he'd be paid. In a comment for the Obtuse Hall of Fame, he told the Times his first paycheck seemed like a "miracle of God."

Except, of course, that it was an act by public officials who knew that no one, not even God, was looking.

And now they were. Juan Bautista, 28, a community-college instructor, barked out: "Step down with dignity, and stop taking our money."

The City Council was apparently enthralled with Rizzo, its city manager. He started in the early 1990s at $72,000 per year, reaching $300,000 in 2004, one of the highest-paid public employees in California. His contract called for raises of 12 percent per year. This, to run a city with, according to Governing magazine, just 80 employees. 

Perhaps to ensure their loyalty, Rizzo pushed the council members to change Bell from a "general-law" city — governed by state laws that restrict City Council pay — to a "charter" city, which has wide latitude to, among other things, pay the council members far more, in this case nearly $100,000 per year.

(As a charter city, the Los Angeles City Council used these same wide-ranging salary rules to push through a complex, voter-approved pay-raise formula that has steadily hiked the council's salary to $178,789, making it the highest in the U.S. They now earn more than members of Congress or federal judges.)

In Bell, the changeover to a charter city passed easily, though fewer than 500 Bell residents voted.

Jose Gomez, who co-owns Taqueria Jalisco near City Hall, says he is embarrassed that he voted for it.

But Gomez's yea vote was hardly unreasonable, says Bob Stern, president of the think tank Center for Governmental Studies. "We want to control our destiny. We all like local control. They didn't say, 'By the way, we're going to pay our City Council $100,000 per year.' "

To help pay the exorbitant salaries, in addition to cutting services and laying off workers, the city devised a cunning scheme to raise revenue. In its working-class neighborhoods, the parking rules in front of apartments and homes make Santa Monica's seem inviting. Bell City Hall reaps big ticket revenues by restricting its residents from enjoying overnight visitors, and ticketing and towing when they do.

Bell's populace has been both championed and mocked by talk radio, at least ostensibly because residents allowed their government to take advantage of them. There's also been the subtext that immigrant bashing makes for good ratings. But in reality, a town of immigrants is ill-equipped to deal with a government so committed to fleecing them.

"It was a matter of no one asking the right questions, and no one having the clout to get the information," Stern says.

Dennise Rodarte, 29, a lifelong Bell resident who works for a nonprofit health-care provider, says, "We always thought there was something rotten in Denmark."

Some months ago, she heard that Bell was merging its police department with Maywood's in order to save money. She and 300 others showed up to protest the merger, but the council moved ahead anyway; Rodarte found them to be arrogant and disinterested.

Ultimately, the residents had a strong ally in the police, who opposed the merger, and seem a potential Times source about the bizarre salaries.

"This ultimately will change our community for the better, because people will be more involved and more aware," Rodarte notes.

Indeed, the meeting Tuesday drew the fire marshal's maximum 270 into the community center, with hundreds listening outside on lawns and sidewalks. "My city is more corrupt than your city!" a T-shirt read.

The council immediately voted to cut its salaries 90 percent, to $673 per month.

Besides Rizzo and Mayor Oscar Hernandez, the most famous civic figure in Bell is Lorenzo Valez, who was being paid just $673 per month after being appointed to the council last summer. He had no idea that council members Artiga, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were getting checks amounting to 12 times more than his for the same job.

Some guys have no luck.

But CNN on Tuesday named Valez its "Most Intriguing" American, apparently because he was earning about the right price for his part-time, small-town council duties.

Neither the 90 percent pay cut nor the contrition of Rizzo ally Hernandez, who said he would forego pay altogether, cooled the crowd's fury.

The public-comment list had 103 names on it, with each person given three minutes.

One by one, in voices alternating between English and Spanish, cold contempt and hot animosity, they demanded that the council resign, and in some cases, leave Bell — or be sent to prison.

On that score, Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is in a tough fight in the governor's race with Republican Meg Whitman, has subpoenaed hundreds of documents to determine if any of what's happened in Bell is illegal. D.A. Steve Cooley and the state controller are also investigating.

This incident in Bell — working-class residents scammed by politicians and public employees — is already having deep, emotional resonance across Southern California and the state.

All California taxpayers will have to pay the millions of pension dollars owed to Rizzo and some others; the issue is already working against Democrats because the generous pensions, especially in a time of fiscal distress, are viewed by many voters as a giveaway to public-employee unions. 

And the Bell scandal can arouse a more general antigovernment passion — and not just among the Tea Party, says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who is tracking the California governor and U.S. Senate races.

It's visceral and easy to explain in a 15-second ad, not unlike free courtside tickets to a Lakers game.

"You have working-class Latinos mad at government, and that's not good for Democrats, as they are the government," Duffy says.  

Jose Gomez, the Taqueria Jalisco co-owner, says he now wonders, "How many Bells are there?"

For Democrats facing a surly electorate this fall, the danger is that California voters have come to believe the Golden State is one giant Bell.

Reach the writer at pcoolican@laweekly.com.

 

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