Sunday, July 25, 2010

For Whom the Curfew Tolls: Three Down in Bell, Four to Go

Bell, California has received national attention for the obscene salaries of its three top officials and 4 of 5 Council members. The less than Magnificent Seven earned over $2 million annually in one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County.

Thanks to the investigative reporting of the Los Angeles Times (which is the source of much of this blog), we learn the political leaders of Bell set the national record for avarice, not in the form of big city corruption practiced by the Boss Tweeds and Governor Blagojevich’s, but “publicly” and “openly” in the form of salaries, stipends, benefits, and pensions.

Robert Rizzo, the City Manager, draws a salary of 787,637, Angela Spaccia, the Assistant City Manager only earns 376,288, and Randy Adams, the Police Chief of a year, earns $457,000, or 50% more than the $307,000 of Charles Beck, the LAPD Chief.

Nice jobs if you can get them. The Bell Police Department employs 46while the LAPD employs 12,899. 33 of the Bell employees are sworn police officers compared to 9,959 on the LAPD.

Not bad as a sinecure for the Chief, especially since Bell is not a crime infested city.

Let me rephrase that. Bell is apparently infected with traffic scofflaws. A traffic ticket can cost you $640, while retrieving your vehicle from impoundment will set you back $500. Someone has to pay for those salaries.

Rizzo’s contract had 3 years remaining, since one clause in it provides for automatic renewal each year. Another interesting term and condition is that each automatic renewal in July carries with it a 12% salary increase. The latest increase amounted to $84,389.76. Spaccia receives the same 12% increase. Her defense is that “You get what you pay for.”

The Mayor of LA earns $232,425.

Rizzo and the other two agreed to resign after a contentious Council meeting last Thursday night. Terms of the retirement agreements were not released, but they can afford retirement.

Rizzo will receive a lifetime pension of at least $660,000 annually, Adams $411,300, and Spaccia’s could be $250,000. Adams’ pension when he retired as Chief of the Glendale Police Department last year would have been $194,000 annually. His salary at the time was $215,304. In short, he more than doubled his salary and pension in one year. The pensions are fully indexed.

Who says the streets of the Golden State aren’t paved with gold?

The taxpayers in over 300 California communities will be paying for these pensions.

Bell also covered Rizzo’s pension and social security contributions. In addition to these benefits, Adams’ contract called for lifetime health, dental and vision benefits for him and his wife.

Bell is a tiny small community of 2.1 square miles, one of several poor, small cities in southeast Los Angeles County: Bell, Maywood, Vernon, Huntington Park, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, South Gate, that perplex the proponents of good government.

Maywood has laid off almost all public employees, contracting out municipal services to private contractors and other communities, such as Bell.

Bell is an old industrial city that is now 90.7% Hispanic, and 53.5%foreign born, some legal, some illegal, but 1/6 living below the poverty level. The industries have left to be replaced by poverty. 65% of the residents over 25 lack a high school diploma, and only 4%have a four year degree.

Most residents are hard working, often with two low paying jobs as they try to survive and raise their families.

As with most early immigrant populations, they do not get civilly involved. Hence, the opportunity for corruption and abuse of power by the civic officials exists. Some succumb and some don’t. The Bell officials took the money.

Citizens who asked for the salary figures were told to file Freedom of Information Act Requests. The city's response to FOIA requests was to ignore them.

Only when the LA Times pushed the issue, threatening to litigate were the figures released. Now we know why the city wanted to keep them secret.

Hector De La Torre was upset at the corruption in his neighboring city of South Gate. He led a public revolt and ultimately was elected to the state Assembly. He got a bill enacted that limited the salaries of city council members in “general law cities.”

The officials called a special election to put a measure on the ballot that changed Bell into a “charter city” and hence exempt from the restrictions. The vote in the little publicized election (less than 1% of the population voted) was 336 in favor against 54 negatives. 239 ballots were absentee votes.

Rizzo received a 25% salary increase upon the conversion. The Council members also bumped their compensation.

Had Bell not converted to a charter city, the pay of the council members would have been limited to $400 a month with additional limits of $150 per month for sitting on a board.

Four Bell Council members are drawing $7,873.25 monthly for sitting on the Planning Commission, Surplus Property Authority, the Public Finance authority, and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.

Bell’s Council members are outraged, simply outraged, at the salaries earned by the three officials. They are so outraged that they forgot they approved the contracts. Four of the Council members, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, and council members George Mirabel, and Luis Artiga are earning almost $100,000 annually for their part time services. The fifth, Lorenzo Velez, only receives $8,076. When he recently asked why the other four earn 11 times his salary, the response of Vice Mayor Jacobo is that “We were elected, but he was appointed.”

Council members also receive medical and pension benefits for their part time positions.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez is very supportive of the “excellent” performance of Rizzo, even as the resignations were announced.

One can posit that the four council members are venal, stupid, or incompetent. Their viable options are coming down to resign or be recalled. They are holding a special meeting tonight in which they will offer to cut their pay.

Unfortunately for them, John and Ken are broadcasting live from 2-7 today outside the Bell City Hall.

Also unfortunate for the Council members, the citizens of Bell have reached the "We're fed up and won't take it any more" stage."

English cries of “recall” reverberated through the crowd outside the Council chambers last Thursday. A citizens group has been founded “Bell Association to Stop the Abuse,” or BASTA in Spanish.

Rizzo was earning $95,000 annually as City manager of Hesperia when he left for the Bell position in 1993 at a starting salary of $72,000. He earned $300,000 in 2004 and then was boosted to 442,000 ten months later.

He shows his respect for Bell by living in the Orange County city of Huntington Beach. He also owns a horse ranch outside Auburn, Washington.

He has apparently been under a lot of stress lately. He was arrested in May for DWI with a blood alcohol level of.28.

His stress level is rising. Both the LA County DA’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office are investigating the Bell officials for criminal violations. They probably will not have to dig far to find criminal activity. I predict that something will also give on the pensions.

That both Attorney General Jerry Brown and LA DA Sid Cooley are running for higher office in November almost ensures action will be taken against the Bell officials.

The curfew tolls in Bell.

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