Californians wonder how city officials got high pay

Demographics raise questions near L.A.

BELL, Calif. | A group of passing high school students paused in front of a TV news truck set up for another day in what was a weeklong vigil in front of City Hall last week. The questions they asked of reporters reflected the confusion of a community that has come unmoored over revelations that public officials here were paying themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual salaries.

“Are they taking money out of the schools?” asked 11th-grader Janet Sanchez. “Where does all that money come from?”

“Are they going to jail?” asked Alejandra Ceballos.

“All these authorities were getting the money,” Janet said. “How can we trust any of them?”

The answer is uncertain, and the frenzied response to the exorbitant salaries in this working-class Los Angeles suburb shows no clear end in sight.

California’s attorney general, the state comptroller and the Los Angeles district attorney have announced separate probes, as residents have protested and struggled to make sense of the revelations that public officials were being paid up to $800,000 per year, with part-time City Council members making as much as $100,000 annually.

The crisis threatens to destabilize a largely poorer part of Los Angeles County, where some cities have as high as a 96 percent Hispanic population and where as many as half of residents are ineligible to vote because of their immigration status.

Census figures show that more than half the residents of Bell, 53.3 percent, were born outside the United States. The 2-square-mile city has a population of 36,000, according to a sign “tagged” with gang graffiti off the freeway at the edge of town.

But the salaries and retirement benefits of City Manager Robert Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and Police Chief Randy Adams were a combined $1.6 million a year in a city where the median household income is $40,000, according to the Southern California Association of Governments.

The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Bell homeowners pay the second highest property tax rate of Los Angeles County’s 88 cities — a rate that is higher by half than that paid by homeowners in the wealthier enclave of Beverly Hills.

The three Bell city officials under scrutiny announced their resignations on July 26 but could receive lucrative pensions under contracts that are now under review by auditors from the nation’s largest public employee pension fund, CalPERS.

The investigations announced last week coincided with public demonstrations that drew 1,000 protesters to Bell City Hall calling also for the resignation of the part-time City Council members who approved the salaries, and who themselves received high pay after holding a 2005 special election to make Bell a charter city. Fewer than 400 people voted.

The law change created a loophole that allowed the council to approve such salaries, and that, too, is the subject of a criminal probe into suspicions of election fraud and conflict of interest. Council members on Tuesday voted to reduce their salaries by 90 percent.

Still, the community’s anger, expressed in rallies and on activist blogs, has prompted a security presence in front of the homes of at least two elected officials.

The salary blowup is the latest in a decade of scandals that have plagued a cluster of similarly small cities in the southeastern part of Los Angeles County — cities that once embodied the American dream, with their plentiful auto industry and manufacturing jobs, civic pride and stable communities but that now are plagued with high unemployment, poor schools and rampant crime.

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