Keeping City Hall Accountable: Reflections on the Bell Scandal

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The challenge of keeping city hall accountable was on display Thursday at a conference examining the transformation of Bell, a working-class California city of 34,000 that was upended after a 2010 Los Angeles Times article reported the criminally excessive pay of its top officials.

The conference, hosted by Chapman University’s Political Science Department, featured many of the activists, political voices and public officials whose work was key in pushing changes in the city.

The conference focused on a public compensation scandal uncovered by Pulitzer Prize-winning Times’ reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, the latter who participated in Thursday’s panel.

According to their reporting, former City Manager Robert Rizzo was being paid a total of 1.5 million dollars in wages and benefits; assistant city manager Angela Spaccia and police chief Randy Adams were making half a million dollars in salaries and benefits; and city council members received more than $100,000 annual salaries — all far above what counterparts in neighboring cities would make.

“A lot of people knew something was wrong [before the Times’ article], and had been working to figure out what was wrong and how to get our government back. But they couldn’t get that information, largely because the process for citizens getting access to public records at city hall isn’t always user-friendly,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who was elected in 2012 after defeating incumbent Tom Calderon.

Garcia helped organize the Bell Association to Stop Abuse (BASTA), a citizen group that was integral to helping Times’ reporters break the story and forcing a recall.

Garcia said the Times’ reporting fueled much of the group’s organizing, simply by providing information to residents.

“It means that for the first time for many years, the community had some information about their city and how their money was being spent,” Garcia said.

Councilman Ali Saleh, the city’s first mayor after Rizzo’s departure, also noted how the scandal brought together the city’s Lebanese and Latino community during the organizing process.

Saleh said that when he was running for office before the scandal, he had difficulty getting residents interested in voting for him.

“People would say, well the streets are clean and the parks are great, why do you even want to run?” Saleh said.

After the Times’ story broke, Saleh and Garcia began organizing together to rally residents to attend city council meetings, normally attended by five people or less, Saleh said.

In a city where few people have the time for Facebook or Twitter, Saleh said organizers often woke up at 3 a.m. to post fliers to the passenger side windows of cars — to encourage people to read the fliers before they removed them.

“This was the only way we could get people to come to council meetings,” he said.

At the busiest of meetings, more than 700 people would attend. Garcia said the scandal gave people a sense of urgency to get involved.

“If it’s not us, then who is it going to be? It was amazing to see the generational work. You had young kids all the way to our senior citizens, out there, getting signatures on a regular basis,” said Garcia. “When the community has the knowledge, they start to believe in themselves.”

Bell’s Vice Mayor Alicia Romero asked Gottlieb how journalists reacted to the Bell scandal, and if it would result in more coverage of city news.

“Unfortunately, the Times has half the staff they did when I started — and who knows what problems the Register has,” said Gottlieb. “There are fewer and fewer reporters out there. The LA Times, we don’t even have anyone covering the Southeast.”