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.

It started as a local story about small-city graft but quickly grew to become a national symbol of greed and failed government.

Nine months ago, the 40,000 residents of the city of Bell, Calif., – where 1 in 6 lives below the poverty line – became incensed with the discovery that several city officials were making six- and seven-figure salaries after creating secret boards and giving themselves outrageous raises.

Now, the light shined on the city of Bell by journalists, public officials, and the courts will reap large lessons from coast to coast, several political analysts say. As eight current and former officials await trial for fraud, Bell voters – one-fourth of the city’s population – will select five new city council members Tuesday from among 17 candidates in a recall election.

Jerry Brown's California: Five big changes from 1975 to 2011

Among those awaiting trial and subject to the recall vote: Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, and Councilman George Mirabal.

“Many of these officials will be going to jail, and we’ll see who voters choose to replace them,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. She says that rather than just being a heinous anomaly, this Bell episode is illustrative of a bigger problem across the country.

Robert Rizzo, the former city manager, was paid $787,637 – nearly twice President Obama’s salary and the highest among municipal employees in the state. Mr. Rizzo is accused of writing his own employment contracts, which were never approved by the city council. The former city manager also is accused of giving nearly $2 million in unauthorized loans to himself and others.

Angela Spaccia was paid $376,288 annually as assistant city manager, and four of five council members earned more than $100,000 a year. An audit by the California State Controller's Office last summer found that Bell illegally overtaxed residents and businesses to the tune of $5.6 million.

'New wave of transparency'

“The good news is that [the Bell scandal] has served us well in that everyone is having discussions on capping local salaries and how to reform pensions,” says Ms. O’Connor. “It has created a new wave of transparency and real, substantive reform. It’s not just optics.”

California’s reforms include an online, searchable database of local salaries and compensations, as well as new state laws that limit such salaries. Several investigations of other communities are pending as well. O’Connor and others say such corruption is the tip of the iceberg, suggesting that it has increased with the severe demands of modern life alongside the demise of local newspapers.

“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.”

“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.”

Jerry Brown's California: Five big changes from 1975 to 2011

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