Bell, Calif. — When you come off the 710 and onto the Florence Avenue ramp, there is on this particularly smoggy August day a dirt-encrusted drifter, standing in a litter-strewn, overgrown strip of soft shoulder and holding a scrap of cardboard, on which is written an illegible message for the presumed benefit of passing motorists. He shakes his head slowly, rhythmically, from side to side as you roll by and turn right onto the avenue, passing over what is loosely referred to as the Los Angeles River — a sorry trickle of dingy water moping its way through a weed-lined, cracked-concrete channel, under a phalanx of latticework-steel electrical lines, each of them an ugly little Eiffel Tower.
On your right is the kind of gas station that has a token-operated, unisex restroom; on your left, a drab strip mall dominated by an outpost of the California Department of Rehabilitation. Farther off, trailers and modest one-story houses of pink and beige and aquamarine, on chain-link-fenced lots as much concrete as grass.
The Atlantic Avenue retail strip is the center of commerce here, such as it is. It is split down the middle by a line of nice-enough dwarf palms, and has a Carl’s Jr. and a Starbucks, a KFC and a Blockbuster. But many of the shop spaces along the avenue are shuttered, and the rest host ramshackle bodegas and discount clothing stores.
The strange symbols on the vagrant’s makeshift sign might as well have said “Abandon all hope . . .”
This is the way to Bell, Calif.: population 36,664, and the poster city for fiscal dysfunction and bad government in the poster state for fiscal dysfunction and bad government.
It is a place barely two miles square — a half dozen stoplights in any direction and you’re somewhere else — a poor, predominantly Hispanic community like dozens of others in Southern California, its people eking by on a per capita income of $24,800.
So it must have come as something of a shock when, earlier this summer, Bell residents learned from a report in the LA Times that their top bureaucrat, city administrator Robert Rizzo, was earning $1.54 million annually in total compensation, while enjoying 143 (paid) sick and vacation days per year. And that Rizzo’s assistant, Angela Spaccia, was pulling down $845,960 a year. And that police chief Randy Adams, overseeing a department of 24 that had recently slashed its training budget in half, was earning $770,046.
The Times report set off a chain reaction of outrage, awakening a populace that had just a few short years ago voted in abysmally low numbers to let the bureaucrat-barons of Bell write their own charter bypassing the limits on municipal-service compensation enshrined in California state law. And as the people of Bell set upon council meetings calling for firstborns, the L.A. County district attorney launched an inquiry and assembled a grand jury, and the Times thumbed deeper into the city’s books.
It turned out that Rizzo, Spaccia, and Adams were just the scum atop the cesspool.