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Broken watchdog

February 1, 2011 - Jim Anderson
Bell, Calif., is a city of 37,000 in Los Angeles County. The median income is about $40,500, compared to a countywide average of $57,152. About half of its residents may be illegal immigrants.

The community made national headlines this past summer when the Los Angeles Times reported that the city's top officials were being paid tremendous salaries.

The city administrator in Bell was making nearly $788,000 annually (plus $700,000 in benefits); the police chief, a salary of $457,000; the assistant city manager, $376,000. Also, four of the Bell City Council’s five members were drawing about $100,000 per year in their part-time positions.

Like many people, I wondered at the time of those initial reports why no one had cried foul earlier. Where was the local newspaper?

Diligent news coverage, it turns out, had long been absent.

Bell hadn’t had a vibrant community newspaper since the late 1990s, according to Brian Hews, a newspaper group publisher in California.

About a month ago, L.A. Times reporter Christopher Goffard recapped the Bell fiasco. City administrator Robert Rizzo was hired in 1993, at a time when the city was hurting from plant closings and a general lack of civic engagement, Goffard noted.

Rizzo was a hands-on manager who did much to spruce up the community. Eventually, though, it became a spectacle of graft.

By 2004, Rizzo’s salary had climbed to $300,000. The next year, the city’s voters approved a ballot question that established Bell as a charter city.

“Passing with just 336 yes votes, the measure lifted salary caps on council members, who went on to approve further dramatic pay raises for Rizzo and themselves,” Goffard reported.

The city boosted its coffers through tax increases, arbitrary fees on businesses and aggressive traffic patrols. Officers impounded cars regularly — as many as eight by an officer in a single shift. It cost owners $300 to get them back.

From 2007 to 2010, a city property tax to help cover the cost of employee pensions was increased by 50 percent. Overall, local taxes doubled from 2006 to 2010, along with direct assessments for trash collection, sewer maintenance and other services, a review of county records has shown.

The L.A. Times uncovered Bell’s sky-high salaries somewhat coincidentally. The figures were found in documents obtained through the California Public Records Act as the newspaper look into possible malfeasance in a neighboring city.

The city’s top officials resigned in the wake of the public outcry last summer. Since then, there have been eight arrests on charges of misappropriation of public funds.

The L.A. Times, meanwhile, has found failures in audits of public agencies in a number of other California municipalities.

If no one close by is watching — whether it’s a newspaper or some other entity with the wherewithal to help monitor local politics — the first and maybe best defense against scandal is broken.



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