When the watchdog's away, the city will play

From the now infamously high salaries of Bell’s city council, to the questionable city contracts in Maywood and the residents of Hawaiian Gardens gathering signatures in an effort to recall two city council members, corruption seems to be spreading across the Southland.
From the now infamously high salaries of Bell’s city council, to the questionable city contracts in Maywood and the residents of Hawaiian Gardens gathering signatures in an effort to recall two city council members, corruption seems to be spreading across the Southland. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Where were the voters and the press before the scandals broke out? Overflow crowds fill Bell's City Council chambers and the neighboring community room as revelations surface that the city manager was making $800,000 a year.

The scene is repeated in Maywood. In Hawaiian Gardens, residents push for a recall of two councilmen. An indictment in Vernon and federal prison time for a former treasurer in South Gate. Scandals rock Compton and Lynwood.

"The big problem is no one was watching," Bob Stern, the president of the Center for Governmental Studies, told KPCC's Patt Morrison on Tuesday. "I really feel sorry for the citizens of Bell. They were stonewalled by the City Council."

Several law enforcement investigations are underway into the city of Bell's finances.

The city found itself in the national spotlight when the Los Angeles Times reported that some top city officials were making exorbitant salaries. 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 community has gotten really engaged," said Cristina Garcia, spokeswoman for the Bell Association to Stop The Abuse (BASTA), a reform group backed by city police officers. "They just want to work on getting their government right."

Rizzo, Adams and Spaccia have resigned in the uproar that rose when The Times printed those salaries. The paper also revealed that Bell's mayor and three of the city's four council members were being paid $97,000 for their part-time jobs.

The mayor and council members agreed to reduce their salaries, but refused to heed their outraged constituents' calls to step down.

"Many of the cases occur because there is an unengaged electorate," said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

He cited investigations in 28 of the county's 88 cities, and also cited the lack of a local newspaper as a factor. Cooley characterized what happened in Bell as "nothing more than unbridled greed and operating in secrecy."

According to state Controller John Chiang, state law caps the property tax rate for pension obligations at the rate used in fiscal year 1983-84. But residents of Bell saw their property tax obligation increase from 0.187554 percent in 2007 to 0.277554 percent this year, he said.

Reacting to the Bell scandal, California Treasurer Bill Lockyer this month ordered CalPERS, the state's pension program, to report on city and state employee salaries.

L.A. and several other cities in the state have begun posting the salaries of public officials. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for the posting of state employee salaries as well.

Garcia called for salaries to be presented in a way that's easy to understand.

She cited Huntington Beach as a city which provides basic information about base salaries, severance money, overtime and benefits it pays to its employees.

Stern suggested requiring cities to put city council meetings on the Internet, perhaps via podcasts.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that people are losing their watchdogs.

Local print publications are disappearing as print journalism jobs dry up due to changing habits of readers merging to the Web and print ad dollars dry up.

The Los Angeles Times once had seven local editions with staffs that covered neighborhoods, Stern said.

California lawmakers are debating bills related to the salary scandal in the city of Bell that has set off a fierce statewide debate about how much municipal employees should be paid.

Under one bill going before the legislature this week, SB501, all city and county government employees would have to report their compensation each year and have it posted on a public website.

Another bill, AB1955, would restrict the compensation that employees of charter cities can earn.

California's giant public pension fund, CalPERS, is reviewing the salaries of highly paid municipal employees statewide.

It also is conducting a separate review of the highly compensated employees of Bell, where a city manager's annual salary and benefits totaled $1.5 million.

Authorities are looking into questionable city contracts in Maywood. Residents of Hawaiian Gardens are gathering signatures in order to recall two city council members.

Other officials have also been charged in corruption-related cases.

In Vernon, the now-retired city manager, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., was indicted after having made more than $600,000 a year.

In South Gate, the former treasurer was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after being convicted of taking $20 million from the city.

In Compton, Former Mayor Omar Bradley and four city officials were arrested in connection with misusing city credit cards.

In Lynwood, five City Council members were indicted in connection with using city money to boost their salaries and for personal expenses.

KPCC Wire Services contributed to this report.

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