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For residents of impoverished, defrauded Bell, Calif., it's payback time

The little city of Bell, Calif., became a symbol of greed and failed government when it was found that city officials had awarded themselves huge salaries. On Tuesday, the voters get their say.

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“The city of Bell is typical in that voters don’t pay much attention to their state and local legislative bodies, and the media are too stretched to look at each of the governmental jurisdictions within their territories,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “Governmental officials in the smaller jurisdictions rely on this lack of attentiveness and interest. There are a lot of Bells throughout the county; we just don’t know about them.”

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“Officials were able to loot the city treasury because nobody was looking,” adds Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “It did not have its own daily newspaper, and the large metro papers simply lacked the staff to keep tabs on every community in the area.”

The case has achieved attention beyond state borders, say experts, and the lessons will apply beyond the borders as well.

“The lesson from this involves lots of players,” says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Need for voter vigilance

First, he says the citizens of Bell needed to be more vigilant in their votes in order to avoid electing corrupt individuals. Second, the local media needed to be more thorough in their coverage and investigation of city government in Bell early on in the careers of the incumbents now charged with corruption.

“Third, the state government may need to pass laws preventing local officials from enriching themselves through appointment to municipal boards,” he says. “Lots of blame to go around.”

The Bell story has had untold positive effect in reminding citizens and public officials how vigilant they need to be, says Craig Wheeland, professor of political science, local government, and public administration at Villanova University.

He says the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C., developed guidelines for compensation “in response to what happened in Bell. They realize that it doesn’t help to have a story about a community where both elected officials and the professionals who are responsible for government are corrupt. It plays out everywhere and gives public service a bad name.”

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