City of Bell Becomes Poster Child For the Corruption of Public Employee Salaries –
Worse than that, the Mayor and Council got an obscure measure on the ballot that allowed council members to pay themselves any amount of money. They received $90,000 and $100,000 a year as part-time councilmembers.
On Friday the Bell City Council accepted resignations from the three top city administrators, but then a few hours later offered a defiant defense of that compensation. These official would not be receiving several packages.
Mayor Oscar Hernandez called the City Manager’s salary “well within reason” based on “the excellent job he did for the city.”
“Unlike the skewed view of the facts the Los Angeles Times presented to advance the paper’s own agenda, a look at the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the city manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure,” he said in a letter to the public.
On the contrary, the League of California Cities released a statement very critical of Bell and determined to work on legislation to avoid a repeat of the fiasco in other cities. “We are unaware of any city in the nation where salaries of this level are paid for comparable positions,” the league said in a statement.
A few other issues. Former City Manager Rizzo, even with the resignation, may receive between $600,000 and $650,000 annually over his lifetime. That means that he could receive about $12 or $13 million from taxpayers over a twenty year period. The Police Chief could pull in over $8 million and the assistant about $7.5 million.
In a statement from the California League of Cities, they are looking into legislation to prevent this from occurring the future. Executive Director Chris McKenzie in a statement said Friday, “City leaders stand ready to work with our state counterparts to craft a package of legal reforms and best practices guidelines to bring greater transparency to both local and state government decisions about compensation of public officials and administrators.”
He continued, “State and local leaders need to collaborate to set the highest ethical and legal standards for how compensation is determined and set for state and local officials. The public deserves no less.”
He concluded, “The League’s City Managers’ Department has already formed an internal task force that is working on a series of recommendations that we expect to be sharing with our board of directors and the legislature in the very near future. The League looks forward to engaging our state counterparts and trust they want to set the same standard for open government and transparency in all branches of state government.”
The voters of Bell of course cannot simply rest with the resignation of three city officials. They must remove their entire city council which has blatantly violated their public trust.
Meanwhile Attorney General Brown’s office announced it was investigating the fiasco. He will examine not just Bell but other local governments as well. “These outrageous salaries in Bell are shocking and beyond belief,” Brown said. “With record deficits and painful budget cuts facing California cities, astronomical local government salaries raise serious questions and demand a thorough investigation.”
Brown’s probe will examine records to determine whether any illegality, self-dealing, or other improper activity occurred in Bell or other cities and counties in the state. Some have even suggested that the level of corruption rises to racketeering.
Peter Mixon, General Counsel of CalPERS, the state’s public employee retirement agency, said, “CalPERS welcomes working collaboratively with the Attorney General’s office to investigate the facts and circumstances regarding pension and related benefits for the city of Bell.”
Stuart Leavenworth, in the Sacramento Bee, called the fiasco a “plunder,” “a disaster on several levels.” He wrote, “It’s a disaster for the media, which should have uncovered the council’s shenanigans long ago.”
Perhaps it is. But to me it shows the problem with relying on the media. The city of Bell does not have its own newspaper. So which media should have been tracking it? Eventually the Los Angeles Times uncovered the corruption, but the damage was done. But the Los Angeles Times covers the huge LA County and focuses on large cities rather than the relatively small 40,000 resident city of Bell and other like cities.
It seems in a small city like Bell, the public officials can do this because no one is watching. There are many other places like Bell out there and hopefully the Attorney General will take an expansive view to catch other cities that maybe doing likewise.
Public scrutiny and transparency is a powerful force and we need to do all we can to ensure that light gets shined on all facets and levels of government to avoid future Bells.
—David M. Greenwald reporting