Wringing Bell
From the Sep. 20, 2010, issue of NR.


Daniel Foster

I fill out a public-records request and bring it to one of the bored college-age girls behind the desk who, it quickly becomes clear, exist solely to sandbag the curious as politely as possible. The one I talk to has the Christian name of a Brazilian supermodel, is studying communications or media at California State University–Long Beach, and says she wants more than anything to host So You Think You Can Dance. I give her the form and tell her I want to see the minutes from every council meeting over the last five years. I want to know where the people of Bell were while their government was voting to become millionaires on their dime.

The girl tells me if I want copies it could take up to ten days.

I don’t want copies, I just want a stack of minutes and a chair.

Well, she explains, there are people who requested to see the minutes before you, so you’ll have to wait.

Fine, I’ve got all afternoon. When do you think they’ll be done?

Who? she asks.

The other folks looking at the minutes.

Oh, she says, there’s nobody looking at the minutes now.

Then why can’t I look at them?

Because there are people ahead of you who put in requests.

But they’re not here now?


I’m fairly sure this is illegal under California’s freedom-of-information laws, but I add my cellphone number and my New York address to the form all the same. She says I’ll be contacted when I can look at the minutes. (As of press time, I still haven’t heard a peep.)

What about the budget? May I see that?

Sure, she says, and points me to a lime-green ring-bound tome sitting on the other end of the counter. It contains Bell’s five-year budget plan.

I settle in next to the West Hollywood investigative reporter and his cameraman and have a look.

I notice that Bell became an expensive place to govern rather quickly: Total expenditures on administrative services skyrocketed from $5.4 million in 2002–03 to $23.9 million just a few years later. The story is the same when you break it down by department: Everywhere, the salary and “administrative costs” expenditures were big and growing — here from $394,305 to $1.044 million, there from $108,265 to $331,872 — but no single line item matches the biggest of the reported figures.

Figuring that Robert Rizzo’s $1.5 million pay package should stand out from the spreadsheets, I look for the City Administrative Officer line item. I find not one, but many, each with a different salary figure attached to it and none approaching seven figures.

And then it all becomes clear. In the sections detailing each department’s personnel needs, there is invariably a call for a fraction of a Rizzo: The office of administrative services needs a hearty 35 percent of him, while the folks down in waste collection need only 10 percent. Liability insurance, workman’s comp, and retirement each make do with 5 percent, and so on. Spread it across enough line items and even $1.5 million begins to look like a pittance to pay for the indispensable Rizzo.