NR Digital

Wringing Bell

by Daniel Foster

Enrich not thyself on the taxpayer dime(s)

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.

The city was paying seven other mid-level functionaries salaries ranging from $229,992 to $422,707, while mayor Oscar Hernandez and three part-time council members were earning nearly $100,000 each, mostly for sitting on an array of dummy boards whose meetings consisted of little more than calls to order and adjournment. An August 25 Times story details a typical block of such meetings held on one evening in 2006:

The Planning Commission met from 8 p.m. to 8:03 p.m. The Redevelopment Agency followed from 8:03 to 8:04, the Surplus Property Authority from 8:05 to 8:06, the Housing Authority from 8:06 to 8:07 and the Public Finance Authority from 8:07 to 8:08.

In those eight minutes, Hernandez and the others accrued just shy of $32,000 in taxpayer dollars.

And as the investigations progressed, it got worse. Internal documents — some little more than handwritten notes — revealed that the council had given $1.6 million in “loans” to council members and employees for unspecified purposes, many of which had yet to be repaid; that they had bypassed voters in bonding $35 million to buy up blighted property on the 710 that was now facing foreclosure; and that they had illegally raised residents’ property taxes by at least $2.9 million in an effort to cover their spending spree.

The full picture of the Bell, Calif., racket was still coalescing when I pulled up to City Hall in a rented subcompact in early August. I was in L.A. for a couple of days on another assignment, but decided to spend an afternoon in Bell to see what I could see. By then, the two millionaire bureaucrats and the police chief had resigned, the council/syndicate had voted unanimously to accept 90 percent pay cuts, and the mayor had graciously volunteered to finish his term pro bono.

The council building itself is an unassuming red brick of square lines on a shady, well-manicured lawn. It shares space with the police station and sits across a parking lot from the small, pleasant-looking town library. It’s a nice setup, but not ostentatious. Whatever else they’ve done, Bell’s city fathers have not built themselves a castle.

Inside, the lingua franca is a fluid, literate, and cleanly accented Spanglish. In the area between the front desk and a bank of administrative offices, an attractive government press flack named Magdalena Prado, on retainer from neighboring Maywood, is handling the half dozen reporters and citizens who want audiences with Pedro Carrillo, the interim city manager. A team of quiet, serious-looking men and women emerge from one set of closed doors toting reams of paper, walk stiffly across the waiting area, and disappear behind another set of closed doors. These are likely the accountants sent by California controller John Chiang to conduct a six-week audit of the city’s finances, though it is hard to say.

Among the journalists in Bell today is a TV investigative reporter from West Hollywood — the kind of guy who specializes in knocking on doors and sticking microphones in the faces of slumlords, used-car salesmen, and scheming deadbeats. He is sitting in the waiting area with his portly cameraman, hiding behind a newspaper. Whenever one of the maybe-auditors emerges from one of those closed doors, he mutters, not quite under his breath: “How’s that audit coming?”

The most he gets is a tight smile and a shrug from an Asian woman in a skirt suit, before she disappears behind a door marked “EMPLOYEES ONLY.”

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?

No.

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.

As I’m tallying the numbers in my notebook, a well-regarded senior reporter from the Times walks in, oxford shirt tucked into Levis, sunglasses perched on forehead, thumbs and eyes locked on cellphone. I introduce myself and we exchange professional pleasantries. Turns out he’s been waiting for weeks to see the very same meeting minutes.

Ah, well, when you’re done, mind if I have a crack?

Sure, he says, except that he isn’t sure when his turn will come. There are people ahead of him who have already put in requests.

Just then, Ms. Prado emerges from the “EMPLOYEES ONLY” room with Carrillo, the interim city manager, in tow. The Times reporter calls after Prado and I see an opening to float my One Rizzo, Divisible theory.

Carrillo is clearly a man who hasn’t had as much sleep as he’d like in the last few weeks. He listens to my theory, smiles, and shakes his head.

“I can’t tell you definitively whether any of that is true until I’ve finished my audit,” he says, pointing at the lime-green, ring-bound budget. “But yes, it certainly looks like this money was hiding in plain sight.”

At this point I notice a large bronze bust of John F. Kennedy set in one corner of the foyer, and it occurs to me, for the first time since I’ve been here, that all five members of the Bell city council are Democrats. Considering the environs, this is so obvious as to be banal; besides, they say greed knows no party.

But something about Kennedy, about the bust, is bugging me.

In the weeks following my visit, State Controller Chiang would announce a spate of new transparency initiatives, attorney general Jerry Brown would continue to beat the subpoena drum, and the state legislature would consider a number of remedies to ensure that there’d never be another Bell.

Meanwhile, the L.A. district attorney’s office would expand its investigation to include allegations of voter fraud — it turns out that half of the votes cast in that 2005 referendum giving Bell pols carte blanche to raise their salaries were absentee ballots of dubious provenance — and the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, a nascent group of angry citizens whose acronym, BASTA, means “Enough” in Spanish, would begin collecting the signatures needed to set in motion the recall of the mayor and three councilmen.

But it took, among other things, years of increasingly brazen and inept corruption, the stress of a recession and a statewide fiscal crisis, at least one anonymous tip, plenty of dogged reporting, and national publicity for the citizenry of Bell to realize when basta was indeed basta. Otherwise the Big Con might still be humming along smoothly, right under their noses.

And then I realize what it is that bothers me about the Kennedy bust. It’s the inscription below, in gold lettering, of Kennedy’s rallying cry.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

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