The explosive self-dealing scandal that has in a matter of weeks blown away the city of Bell’s senior administrative tier was probably inevitable, given the gaps in the Brown Act and the newspaper publishing tradition that once provided small towns with a watchful eye and a voice to be reckoned with.
But that community and others like it need not let such a thing happen again.
First, the newspaper vacuum. Since 1980, when I signed on as legal counsel with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a series of economic shifts has sapped the viability of almost all family-owned, local, community newspapers in the state and the nation.
In the ’80s, weekly newspapers, and even small dailies, lost their monopolies as advertising vehicles for big local retailers like supermarkets, car dealers and real estate offices when “shoppers,” consisting of nothing but ads on newsprint, were bulk mailed or driveway-thrown throughout town to provide “total market coverage.”
What many of the otherwise no-longer-viable weeklies had of principal remaining value was their names, attached to a judicial decree of their essentially monopoly status as a “newspaper of general circulation” eligible to publish city ordinances and other legal advertising.
Meanwhile many single-community weeklies had been expanded to capture the advertising and news of neighboring suburbs, themselves growing in the post-WWII boom. By the early 1960s, for example, the Bell Industrial Post, founded in 1924, had become the Bell-Maywood-Cudahy Industrial Post.
Those names and decrees were increasingly harvested and combined through the ’80s and ’90s, especially in the greater Los Angeles area, by out-of-state newspaper chains. These multi-community publications attempted to be the same watchdogs over local councils and school boards that their individual predecessors had been but were spread far more thin.
The former Industrial Post (last known as the Community News) went through several chain companies’ hands until disappearing as even an independent name. And whatever close coverage of local news it had into the 1990s has been gone for the past decade.
Brian Hews, publisher of the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper Group, recalls in a recent column:
It was years ago that Bell had a community newspaper; it was called the Bell, Maywood, Cudahy Community News.
I know this because it was part of a larger newspaper group my family owned. Art Aguilar was the editor at the time and, suffice to say, you did not mess with Art.
Coincidentally, we sold those papers in 1998, right around the time Bell hired its highly overpaid City Administrator.
This is exactly why cities need a vibrant community newspaper. We are the watchdog for the residents, keeping in check what goes on in the city. Johnny-come-lately bloggers have no chance at a story like this unless they are lucky, and then it is not in print.
It takes someone like LCCN Editor Jerry Bernstein to spot salaries such as Bell’s and call them out in the newspaper.
In short, the Bell spectacle is what happens to communities without their own old-fashioned diligent news coverage by veteran newspaper reporters, or at least smart reporters led by veteran newspaper editors. The result need not be on paper, but it must be done with the community memory and professional savvy almost unique to newspaper-trained journalists with experience watching small-town politics.
Now to the Brown Act gap. California’s open-meetings law for local government, even if perfectly complied with, does not make it hard for Bell-like excesses to creep in.
For example, while the City Council’s approval of salaries for four out of five of its members approaching $100,000 a year should have been done in an open meeting, and may well have been, and while such an action should have been listed in clear language on the agenda for the meeting at which it occurred, and may have been, the Brown Act requires only that the agenda be posted in a single physical location within the city, and has no requirements for open meeting minutes.
It does not require Internet posting, and although Bell’s web page does display council agendas and minutes, they cover only the current year and show no such action.
As for the three hyper-compensated employees, their performance — cited as the basis for their astonishingly high salaries — is not required by the Brown Act to be reviewed in public, and the law also allows closed sessions for the council to consider the basis for any pay increase. Final action on any raises or benefit increases must take place in open session, like that of the council’s own remuneration, but needs to be given public notice only on a single sheet of paper under a thumbtack or staple on some wall in the city.
How these employees’ resignations were handled shows further Brown Act shortcomings. The law allowed the council to take the question of how the trio would depart into a closed session on “pending litigation” on the apparent pretext that a “settlement” was needed to prevent lawsuits by these ex-employees. Settlement agreements are by law public records, but these, as of this writing, have not been released, and possibly not even requested by an inquiring citizen.
In sum, the long absence of a community newspaper covering the city closely left Bell not a perfect storm but a perfect swamp. The Brown Act, cultivated over more than a half century by the newspaper industry, virtually assumes that newspaper reporters will be on hand to use it in scrutinizing government behavior. But even reporters require a bit of periodic training to help them decode agendas and read between the lines of official meeting bureaucratese that the Brown Act is just vague enough to permit as barriers to ordinary citizens.
What’s needed by Bell — or any newspaperless town that wants to avoid becoming another Bell — is steady, consistent coverage by competent observers with journalistic talents and instincts (whatever their publication medium or platform) and some rules better than what the Brown Act now provides.
For example, the Brown Act might be amended to say that the council’s performance evaluation of any employee paid significantly more than the average salary for his or her position in the same size cities statewide must be done in open session with unambiguous advance notice. That way superior pay for superior performance would be more than a flip self-serving claim after the fact — it would be assured by public scrutiny and community control.
No such Brown Act amendment is likely to happen soon, given the certain resistance of local government lobbies. That makes it a logical element to head the menu of a strict local sunshine ordinance either adopted by the city council itself at popular urging or, if the council refuses, by a ballot measure launched by citizen initiative.
The nice thing about small towns like Bell is that getting enough signatures to put such a reform on the ballot is a smaller task as well. If even half the people who have been storming Bell council meetings in recent days to protest the revealed abuses were to organize into a sunshine ordinance drafting and circulation committee, they could literally write (and pass) their own ticket to a transparent city hall.
Terry Francke is Voice of OC’s open government consultant and general counsel for Californians Aware. Please contact him directly at email@example.com. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.