City Officials Resign in Wake of Salary Scandal in City of Bell


Seal_BellCity of Bell Becomes Poster Child For the Corruption of Public Employee Salaries –

When we first covered the fiasco of the city of Bell, it appeared that the city staffers were being defended by their city council.  However, residents of the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb where one in six live in poverty, became outraged to find out how much their city staff was being paid and they demanded that the city manager, police chief, and another high-salaried official resign.

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.

It was not until the Los Angeles Times article last week, based on public records requests, revealed that the city’s payroll was bloated with six figure salaries and huge raises, that the residents even realized what was going on.  They have no newspaper that covers them regularly and the citizens are working class, with little free time to spend on politics.  Such could never happen in a place like Davis, or so we might hope.

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


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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13 thoughts on “City Officials Resign in Wake of Salary Scandal in City of Bell”

  1. rusty49

    I hope the Bell residents can overturn the huge pensions of these crooks. If not the city still comes out a big loser. Just another example of government out of control.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Such could never happen in a place like Davis, or so we might hope.”

    Many things have happened in Davis that shouldn’t have. But as a city, the public is more engaged than in others, which certainly helps keep things in check. Citizen apathy is a dangerous thing – schools need to start teaching, if they aren’t already, civic responsibility. Keep informed about what your local, state and nat’l gov’ts are doing. Voting is a civic responsibility, not just a right. I am appalled that Meg Whitman did not bother to vote for years… same with the guy that replaced former Republican Senator Trent Lott – can’t think of his name, but he was a doctor.

    From a very young age I was taught by my parents to at least vote, politics was always a topic of conversation at the dinner table. But it wasn’t until I obtained a seat on a Davis commission that I really began to understand how gov’t works. I then testified several times before state legislative committees, and really got an education about how gov’t works – or doesn’t. And I feel even more strongly that citizen apathy is dangerous.

    Let’s even take the homeowner association setting, which are little mini-gov’ts. There too, homeowner apathy can lead to people losing their homes in illegal foreclosures, if homeowners don’t keep a close eye on their HOA Boards, Management, and HOA lawyers. I’ve seen horror stories in this arena you wouldn’t believe.

    Keep your eyes open, keep informed, be part of governance whenever possible through joining a city commission on HOA Board – but don’t remain or become apathetic…

  3. cisco

    I live next to Bell since ’64 (came to Hunt.Park in ’51 via Texas) the residents need to vote and know what they are voting for! Too many immigrants and non-documented immigrants THAT DO NOT VOTE…that’s part of the big problem! Even American born Latino moved during the White Flight of the ’70s in these communities…I witnessed it. The city officials take advantage of this concern. These surrounding communties were great places to live middle class working class with a great reputation like Hunt. Park…not anymore so-to-speak. I am glad the people spoke up but it didn’t had to be that way in the beginning. Look what happened in South Gate about 7 years ago (Albert Robles) and recently Maywood. Now Bell … people get your Heads Up on these city matters. Too many illegals are fearful that is part of the problem .. it’s the truth. That’s one of the reasons the Americans left.

  4. Rich Rifkin

    cisco — Do you know anything about the City of Bell owning the casino there called The Bell Club?

    Back around 1990, maybe 1989, I played in a huge poker tournament at The Bell Club*; and I was told by employees that the casino was owned by the City of Bell. I found that very strange, but never have thought of it since.

    What I wonder, now, is if the reason this city of impoverished residents was capable of paying such high salaries was because they were flush with cash from that casino?

    *There were a lot of famous players at that poker tournament. I sat at one table with Bobby Baldwin and at another with Scotty Nguyen, years before Scotty was a world champion. Stu Ungar was also, there, but I never played with him and heard he was high on drugs.

  5. biddlin

    Rich, are you thinking of Bell Gardens perhaps? I recall the casino there, but can’t think of one in Bell.
    (In fact I thought they were only legal in Bell Gardens,Commerce, Gardena, Inglewood and Hawaiian Gardens!)

  6. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”Rich, are you thinking of Bell Gardens perhaps?”[/i]

    No. The Bell Club — if it still exists* — was in the City of Bell. I am sure of that, though it is the case that Bell, Bell Gardens and Commerce all run into one another.

    What I really have no way of knowing is if the City actually owned the club. That is what I was told some 20 years ago–and that is what made me wonder if the club’s fortunes were fed into the City of Bell’s coffers.

    (*I just did a Google search for a phone number for The Bell Club and found nothing. It probably went out of business or changed names. When I played there it was known both as the California Club and The Bell Club and some called it the California Bell Club. But it was definitely there 20 years ago.)

    The big card club in Bell Gardens is the Bicycle Club (now known as the Bicycle Casino). It was always a big deal. And in Commerce, the Commerce Casino was (and still is) a big deal. I think there are a few card rooms in Gardena, but The Hustler Casino is the big one there. I’ve never been there. Nor have I ever played at the club in Hawaiian Gardens or at the Hollywood Park casino, which is in Inglewood.

  7. cisco

    Rich, this is Cisco, I remember 20 years ago somewhere in the industrial area of City of Commerce there was a new card club casino that I can’t recall the name or the street it was on. Maybe that is the card club you are talking about. What people don’t know even people who reside in Bell is that Bell owns property next to City of Commerce north of Slauson Ave. and east of Eastern Ave. south of Bandini Blvd. runs west to the 710 freeway it’s about a mile wide or so..the area.. that mapwise belongs to Bell no homes industrial area with a Bell USPS postal processing center there on Eastern Ave. and Sheila St.
    I wish you knew what street that card casino was in 20 years ago. But I do remember in the late 80s seeing a new card casino somewhere in that are that I don’t think exists anymore.
    Cudahy next to Bell was going to open a card casino – building in place, but didn’t open on Wilcox Ave. and Santa Ana St. never open but they have a card casino on Atlantic Ave. called Casino Caribe Casino in Cudahy. still there.
    But I went to that area in Bell next to Commerce couldn’t find the card club. I know for sure I saw this card club and it wasn’t the regular onces known, I wish I knew what street it was on! Do you know what street and what area it was in … what the area card club looked like?

  8. cisco

    Rich, I read your comment more closely you say the card club was indeed in the City of Bell but I live next door to Bell I don’t recall the club being there but that’s just me, I’m sure you went there, but I am curious where exactly it was on streetwise. Doesn’t matter I guess it’s not there.
    But I thought maybe you were referring to this card casino I saw in Commerce in the area … maybe… that belongs to Bell. They have street names like Amelia Earhart Way, Lindberg, Yeager after pilots years ago I believe there was a helicopter airport in the 60s in that area that is no longer there.
    I think Bell makes money off these businesses in that industrial area next to City of Commerce, but nobody not even the news media is talking about all you got to do is check your maps especially the Thomas Bros map and it says Bell in that industrial area … there’s revenue in that area taxwise, I believe. You can feed that into the City of Bell coffers. But maybe that in itself is no big deal. Maybe somebody should check into it.

  9. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”… Bell owns property next to City of Commerce north of Slauson Ave. and east of Eastern Ave. south of Bandini Blvd. runs west to the 710 freeway it’s about a mile wide or so..the area.. that mapwise belongs to Bell no homes industrial area with a Bell USPS postal processing center there on Eastern Ave. and Sheila St.”[/i]

    Cisco, that’s exactly where it was!

    The friend of mine who took me there just answered my email on this question. He says The Bell Club was on S. Eastern at Rickenbacker Street in an industrial park. He tells me it went out of business a bunch of times and operated under many different names; and it closed for good in the late ’90s.

    He says after we played there, it shut down and re-opened as the Regency Club. And then after that it became the Bell Jackpot Casino and it was owned by the same company which owns the Santa Anita Racetrack.

    As to my first question, did the City of Bell own it, my friend replied, “I don’t think so. They probably taxed it and used the money for their city budget. But since it closed a long time ago, the casino was not the source of money for the current controversy in Bell.”

    Although I played in a Texas Hold-em tournament at The Bell Club, its specialty was Asian poker games. My friend says that Pai Gow poker was invented by the manager of The Bell Club, but he was a white guy. The Bell Club, he said, attracted interest by hosting a monthly NLHE tourney, like the one I played in. Those were uncommon outside of Las Vegas 20 years ago.

    Because of its location, it lost out to the card clubs in the nearby towns which were in better locations.

  10. indigorocks

    this whole thing reaks of the MAFIA!!!!
    That mayor should be sent to jail. all of them should this while thing smells of organized crime. this should be referred to the FBI and the DEA.
    everyone on that council is a foreigner.
    they are raping this country to the bone and we are letting them

  11. anonymous

    everyone on that council is a foreigner.

    How did you determine that they’re foreigners? Did you ask them for valid ID and citizenship papers? Or did you racially profile based on their photos and last names?

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