Bell, Calif., vents its anger in recall vote, then asks: What now?
Voters in Bell, Calif., recalled the mayor and three city councilmembers Tuesday in the aftermath of a scandal that saw city officials pay themselves exorbitant salaries. But with a $4.5 million deficit, the cleansing and healing process is just beginning.
Bell, Calif. — Catalina Mora points out the window of her bargain clothes outlet to snow-covered mountains framing the Los Angeles skyline: “Like those white peaks, we have risen above the filth ... and things look very good from here."
One block away, actor Tye Justis is not so sure. “This is a good beginning but it’s still just a beginning. Honestly, we have a long way to go.”
The two comments frame a debate that started last July, when it was revealed that officials here in the tiny, 2.5-square-mile city of Bell (population 40,000) were among the highest paid municipal employees in the nation. According to the Los Angeles Times, City Manager Robert Rizzo was being paid an annual salary of $787,637, Police Chief Randy Adams $457,000, and assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia $376,000.
The scandal found some measure of resolution Tuesday with an overwhelming vote to recall Mayor Oscar Hernandez and council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, and Luis Artiga. Media reports said that there were long lines outside polling places well past the 8 p.m. deadline.
Residents and political analysts alike say the episode has been a wakeup call for citizens to be more alert and realize they can impact public affairs.
“Bell is a sad tale of what can happen to a city when corrupt elected officials come to power and use dirty tricks to keep power,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies. “The lesson of Bell is that disclosure of elected officials' activities is vitally important. There is no substitute for an active and alert citizenry and responsive representatives.”
Mr. Justis extends that comment to include self-awareness of available laws.
“The lesson here is that citizens need to understand their rights as individuals and to be self-informed about the laws that are out there to protect us," he says. "We have to know what they are and act on them as opposed to just thinking there isn’t anything we can do.”
Justis and others are pleased that California Controller John Chiang now has a website where anyone can search a database that lists local salaries and compensations of public officials in cities throughout California.
“This is a great reform that came out of this scandal, and every state in the union ought to follow suit,” says Justis, a 27-year Bell resident.
But he adds that real closure on this matter will only come when the lead officials in this scandal – now on trial – are brought to justice.
"This election has meant people are regaining their faith in the workings of this city and how it is run," Justis says. "But physically and financially, there is still a long road ahead. A lot still needs to be fixed.”
That began with Tuesday's elections. But the vote was hardly a demonstration of municipal unity. One half of the 17 candidates aligned themselves with a faction called "United for Bell,” while the other aligned with “Justice for Bell.” Justice for Bell was accused being in the tea party's pocket while United for Bell was accused of being bought off by big labor unions.
All this, and the city is $4.5 million in debt.
“Nobody here really knows if these new electees will be any better than what we had before,” says Justis. Former city manager "Rizzo did a lot of good things before he let himself get corrupted. Let’s hope these new folks don’t fall into the same snares.”