Critics Weigh In On Bell Salary Scandal

From residents to neighboring city officials, salary controversy is drawing condemnation.

By Paul Aranda, Jr., EGP Staff Writer

With the revelation of unusually high salaries for public officials in the City of Bell, a strong wave of condemnation has soared from residents and civic leaders.

Some of the City’s council members are now calling for the resignations of three senior administrators and are considering cutting their own salaries, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday.

But on Monday, the first meeting since news of the seemingly exorbitant salaries was first reported in The Times last week, the City Council took no formal public action on the high salary paid to Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo and other officials. Instead it asked the city staff for a report on their salaries.

The Times on Wednesday reported it has learned from three sources that council members have directed the city attorney to move forward with negotiations to secure the resignations of the three city staff members at the center of the salary controversy

The City Council was expected to discuss the report at its next scheduled meeting on July 26. But with public pressure growing, an annoucement that a deal has been struck to force the resignation or bring about the dismissal  of the three public employees at the heart of the controversy could come as early as today, following a special closed meeting of the City Council where consideration of  the “dismissal”  is the only item listed on the agenda notice.

The city pays Rizzo $787,637 annually, and police Chief Randy Adams, $457,000 a year, about 50 percent more than LAPD Chief Charlie Beck or L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, the Times has reported.

Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia is paid $376,288 annually, which is more than most city managers are paid.

On Monday, Bell Councilman Lorenzo Velez announced his support for the reforms called for by a newly formed community coalition, Bell Association to STOP the Abuse (BASTA).

“I am outraged that my fellow Bell City Council members view being an elected official as a way to enrich their own pocket books,” Velez stated in a BASTA press release.

Velez, appointed to the council in October, said he makes about $310 every other week. The Times reported fellow council members are paid $100,000 for serving on the council and other city bodies that often hold meetings simultaneously with council meetings.

Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez has defended the salaries, and he and other city council members told The Times that their city was near bankruptcy when Rizzo came aboard. Since then, they said, he has put Bell on sound financial footing, with its general fund nearly tripling to about $15 million.

BASTA has called for five major reforms to be taken up by the City Council. Cristina Garcia, an adjunct professor at USC, serves as a spokesperson and is a member of the coalition’s steering committee. Garcia, a resident of nearby Bell Gardens, said she was first approached by Bell residents during her unsuccessful run for the Bell Gardens City Council in 2009. Garcia said she is an advocate of open government and told EGP that while the groups’ current efforts are focused exclusively on Bell, she hopes to see it expand to cover all nearby cities in Southeast L.A. County.

BASTA’s reforms include: full disclosure of administrative salaries followed by a forensic audit from a neutral third party, the suspension of salaries and committee stipends for the city employees and council members, and formation of a residents’ committee to review and set salaries. The coalition has also called for suspending plans to establish a regional police department or contract Bell policing responsibilities to any outside entity. On March 4, EGP reported that officials in Maywood and Bell, along with a handful of other small cities in Southeast L.A. County, were considering merging their police departments to save money.

Bell’s City Council delayed a decision last month on the combined department, the Rancho San Antonio Police Authority (JPA). The nearby cities of Maywood and Cudahy have since contracted with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Bell Police Officers Association opposes the JPA and is part of the BASTA coalition.

News of the high salaries of public officials in Bell has also drawn strong rebukes from public and nonprofit groups associated with the city.

On July 20 the Gateway Cities Southeast Los Angeles County City Managers Group sent a letter to the editor to The Times that was also forwarded to EGP, Eastern Group Publications.

“Our group of 27 local city managers reacted with shock and outrage when reading these recent stories. If accurate, what the Los Angeles Times disclosed as happening in the City of Bell may not be illegal, but as local government professionals and as individuals, we want the public to know that we find the reported compensation of the Bell City Manager and others in the that City outrageous and a huge aberration. It is not the norm in our profession.”

Philip Wagner, assistant city manager for the City of Bell Gardens, in an email to EGP stated the current issues in Bell are painting all Southeast cities with a broad brush of distrust for all public servants. He’s says it is “unfortunate that some media and others not familiar with the area are confusing the cities of Bell and Bell Gardens.”

“While we manage organizations with budgets and the number of employees equivalent to some corporations, we are not in the corporate world, said Wagner, who earns less than half of his counterpart in Bell. “We have chosen public service as our profession and the salaries of the magnitude being reported in the City of Bell, in my opinion, can’t be justified.”

In comparison, Bell Gardens City Attorney Steve Simonian’s adjusted annual salary is about $224,000, while the police chief’s is just under $146,000, according to information provided by the City Clerk’s office.

City of Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa, in a statement emailed to EGP yesterday, said he too is shocked and “offended” by the Bell salary debacle. Rifa said because of “the few charlatans among us who choose to exploit the communities they purportedly serve,” the view by some “that individuals who work in the public sector are scoundrels and opportunists,” will be reinforced.

Echoing the views of other city administrators, Rifa said that the “situation unfolding in Bell is not representative of ethics and integrity of the men and women who work in local government,” and that he has strengthened his resolve to work with his colleagues in the Southeast region to “reinforce the highest ideals of public service.”

In nearby Huntington Park, Cesar Zaldivar-Motts serves as the executive director of the Southeast Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit pioneered by former State Senator Martha Escutia (30th District).

“I would prefer that city governments spend their money more wisely and provide more services to their residents,” Zaldivar-Motts said.

He said all the local nonprofits are looking at what is going on with concern because there is so much need in the community.

The SCDC services eight local southeast cites, including Bell through a variety of projects including the Southeast Technology Initiative, a mobile technology lab to enhance computer literacy for local residents, that frequently visits Bell at both Little Bear Park and the Bell Youth Center.

“I hope this salary issue does not jeopardize our focus on providing computer literacy and education to Bell residents,” Zaldivar-Motts said.

“I hope we can continue our efforts with Bell to improve both their food distribution and youth development programs.”

Information obtained from City News Service was used in this report.

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July 22, 2010  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

Comments

3 Responses to “Critics Weigh In On Bell Salary Scandal”

  1. marcos at bell on July 22nd, 2010 1:04 pm

    JOIN US

    http://groups.to/bellassociationtostoptheabuse/

    BASTA, LETS STOP THE ABUSE

  2. leonard valdez on July 26th, 2010 12:48 pm

    all these people should have to pay back the money that they stole not only from the residents of bell but all the people of california.it is an outrage .i gerw up in bell in the 60sit was a good place to be a kid i came back a few years ago but left because i knew some of these crooks like herb mccollah who got all the city contracts without biddind because his kid is a cop there and he drinks and parties with the city attornet at the american legion hall in bell gardens always bragging about their exploits crooks all .they all should be investigated to the fullest extent of the law .throw all the bums out

  3. George Simmons on July 26th, 2010 4:25 pm

    They should get out of dodge and should not even get money or medical or anything. If they ever earn a penny for anything they should be tard and feathered.

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