The Political Microcosm of Bell, CA

Bell, California, a working-class town of some 38,000 ten miles outside of Los Angeles, is a unique place. Its local government has proven to be citizen-proof, media proof, city-council proof and even leak-proof from inside its self-enriching top officialdom.

Get this: Bell city manager. Robert Rizzo resigned a month ago after a Los Angeles Times exposé revealed that he was being paid $800,000 a year, plus 28 weeks of vacation and sick time worth $386,000. He was also expecting to make $600,000 a year in guaranteed pension payouts. Mr. Rizzo also borrowed $160,000 from the city.

Mr. Rizzo had clever political protection. The Police Chief was getting $457,000 a year and members of the City Council of this small city were making, for very part time work, about $100,000 each per year.

Mr. Rizzo’s assistant manager was making a $376,288 base salary a year with a total compensation package substantially larger.

The average per capita income in Bell is $25,000 a year. More than a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line.

Expressions of shock and dismay erupted from the expected quarters—state legislators, other city officials of much larger cities, and the president of the League of California Cities, Robin Lowe. He said: “the reported abuses are an embarrassment to the thousands of hard-working men and women in city government,” and offered the League’s assistance to the Los Angeles County District Attorney and the California State Attorney General in their investigations.

The League should start by explaining to the two prosecutors why it did not know about the staggering pay scale of its member town, especially since there is a state Open Meetings and Public Records Act for ready utilization.

Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez unpersuasively tried to make the best of the multiple pay bonanzas. He told the Los Angeles Times that: “Our streets are cleaner, we have lovely parks, better lighting throughout the area, our community is better. These things just don’t happen, they happen because he had a vision and made it happen.”

Let’s pause momentarily to observe the variety and depth of abdication by the governmental and civic culture in beleaguered Bell. The city has fallen behind on its bond payments, and acknowledged it overcharged its residents’ property taxes by $3 million to pay for those exorbitant pensions.

At least a dozen employees in City Hall had to know of these excesses and chose not to talk or leak the news over the years. The nearby newspapers, TV and radio stations did not dig it out. The city council knew but was compromised by its own huge payments. Still, political gossip is supposed to be irresistible. None of the citizens, including the usual town gadflies or skeptics, bothered to find out. All that was needed to bring this to light was one or two people blowing the whistle. After all, this information is not opinion. It’s arithmetic—crisp numbers that invite everyone’s howl.

The greater Los Angeles area is the very definition of sprawl: a lack of community that promotes more citizen slackers. It is inconceivable that such outrageously bold and self enriching formal compensation could escape the notice of citizens of a New England town—even one without a town meeting type of government. Ask them in Lowell, Mass., Torrington, Conn., Newport, R.I., Portsmouth, N.H., Burlington, Vt. and Bangor, Maine. I’ll bet their reply would be a version of: “Are you kidding?”

Californian largesse also resides in Vernon, California (pop. 91) an industrial-commercial center of 5.1 square miles of territory and nearby to Bell. It is now revealed by the Los Angeles Times, whose reporters have found a new exciting town-by-town beat, that the city administrator, Eric T. Fresch, was paid $1.65 million in total compensation in 2008. Last year was a bummer; Mr. Fresch, who calls himself an experienced finance attorney, received nearly $1.2 million.

Granted, Vernon’s businesses have over 50,000 workers and the town owns its electric utility. But getting paid four times the salary of the President of the United States, who has considerably greater supervisory responsibilities, seems to be an over-reach.

Last year, the Vernon city administrator, Donal O’Callaghan, was paid nearly $785,000, but that included being the director of the municipally-owned utility. Still, together they were just one full-time job. He also had help. The city attorney, Jeffrey A. Harrison, earned $800,000 last year, down from $1.04 million in 2008, while the City Treasurer/Finance Director, Roirdan Burnett had to make do with $570,000.

The former city administrator, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., made $600,000 in 2005 and is awaiting trial on public corruption charges. He still draws a $500,000 a year pension.

All this information about salaries and benefits is public information, but no one in the public was interested enough to find out why nobody was minding the store.

The saving grace in Bell is that, once they found out, some folks were outraged, rushed in protest to the crowded city council meeting and, around town, handed out 10,000 leaflets to engage more residents.

This local movement calls itself BASTA (Bell Association To Stop The Abuse), which means “enough” in Spanish. They strive to arouse the citizenry about where their tax dollars are going, and recall the Council members, if necessary to clean house. They have had enough, finally, at last!

The BASTA organizers must believe there is a limit to the anomie caused by the disintegration of a community’s standards of conduct and norms.

RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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