- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2010

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.

Since 2000, elected officials in neighboring cities such as South Gate, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park have been convicted of crimes such as embezzlement and election fraud.

That year also marked the election of District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose signature initiative at the time was the creation of a Public Integrity Division, aimed at cleaning up the systemic corruption that had taken root in that part of Los Angeles County.

The Bell saga has erupted just as Mr. Cooley is running for state attorney general, and as a number of state and federal probes are under way in neighboring cities.

In particular, officials in Bell and the bordering cities of Maywood and Cudahy have entangled municipal services in a manner that threatens the stability of an already troubled part of the most populous county in the United States.

In 2007, Maywood became the subject of local, state and federal investigations into police practices and suspicions of bribery and kickbacks involving a local tow-truck company. Since 2005, claims totaling more than $19 million — including wrongful death, false arrest, unlawful seizure, assault and rape — were submitted to the city’s insurance provider against Maywood police.

Last month, insurers canceled Maywood’s workers’ compensation and commercial policies, and the city was forced to disband the police and lay off almost its entire city staff.

Contract employees, including employees from Bell, were running the city under the direction of Ms. Spaccia, who went on leave from her job as Bell assistant city manager to act as interim city manager of Maywood. On Friday, she also resigned her position in Maywood. She could not be reached for comment.

In all, 70 Maywood employees were let go, said Magdalena Prado, director of community relations who also is a contract employee.

“We’re looking to identify a permanent city manager,” said Ms. Prado, who could not say exactly how many Bell employees are under contract in Maywood to perform such services as records management, finance and administration of parks and recreation. “It’s difficult because it is not appealing to come to a city with the insurance problems we have.”

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “I’d hate to see others look to us as a model and lay off city staff. But we feel we’ve been successful so far as a contract city. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”

With the Maywood Police disbanded, and with it approximately $7 million of the city’s $10 million annual budget saved, the city now contracts with the county sheriff’s department for police services for $3.5 million a year.

Next door to Maywood City Hall, where the Maywood police banner still hangs in the lobby, a handful of former city employees assisted the sheriff with the transfer of data on Wednesday.

One of those employees, Mayra Robles, said she has no title but that approximately six people have been retained to assist in the transition. She could not give the status of Maywood’s police claims and said the city clerk has no set hours. For now, Maywood is using Bell’s towing service for parking enforcement, she said. The two cities have the same city attorney, she added, who also works on a contract basis.

Before it was disbanded, Maywood police also served on a contract basis in nearby Cudahy, which also is now policed by the Los Angeles sheriff. Bell, Maywood and Cudahy contemplated pooling resources to form a tri-city police force, but that idea is shelved for now, officials say.

The L.A. District Attorney has largely deferred to an FBI corruption investigation in Cudahy in recent years, and law enforcers familiar with the matter say that probe is ongoing. A top prosecutor in the D.A.’s office recently confirmed that other agencies are continuing to investigate in Maywood.

Late Thursday afternoon, as Bell City Hall was closing, Maywood resident Adrian Yepez and his son rushed to the counter at the police department to retrieve a car that they said was towed from their residence.

Asked what they thought of the Bell city officials’ salaries, Mr. Yepez replied: “Now I have to pay $200 to get my car back. Now it’s happening to me. Maybe I see now what this is all about.”