Corruption-riddled Bell cancels council meeting

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File photo: (L-R) City of Bell council members Lorenzo Velez, vice mayor Teresa Jacobo, mayor Oscar Hernandez, Councilman George Mirabel and Councilman Luis Artiga listen to residents asking them to resign during a council meeting on July 26, 2010 in Bell, California.

It was the first regularly scheduled City Council meeting in the corruption-riddled Los Angeles suburb of Bell since eight current and former city officials were charged with looting city funds - but it didn't happen.

The Monday night meeting was canceled when four council members facing criminal charges didn't show up.

"Due to the lack of a quorum, we won't be able to have our regular meeting today," Lorenzo Velez, the only councilman not facing criminal charges, told more than 200 people who'd come to the meeting.

One of the four, George Mirabal, was in jail. Another, Luis Artiga, resigned earlier in the day. Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo both called in sick.

"I want to thank you all for coming. I want to applaud you for coming and the civic participation you've already started," Velez said.

Dozens of people had signed up to speak to the council and Velez decided to let them go ahead, although he told them as the only council member present he couldn't take any action.

Many of them were angry and some blamed interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo for not moving fast enough to restore the city. Residents have discovered in recent months they've been overtaxed and public funds have been mismanaged, misappropriated and have gone to pay inflated salaries for the other four council members and other city administrators.

"You have done nothing," an angry resident, Willie Aguilar, shouted at Carrillo. "You have been nothing but empty promises."

Another speaker, 9-year-old Valerie Jacobo, complained that it upset her to watch her grandparents and parents fight over how high their tax bill was. She asked Velez why that was and he told her there had been corrupt people running her city.

"My mommy taught me better," replied Jacobo, dressed in a Disneyland sweatshirt.

Velez told her: "Good for your mommy."

Later, as she spoke to a reporter, Jacobo pointed to the nameplate in front of the chair where the vice mayor would normally sit and made it clear: "I'm not related to her."

The public comment session lasted about 2 1/2 hours.

Artiga, Mirabal, Hernandez and Jacobo were arrested last month, accused of taking part in a scam that bilked taxpayers so they could pay themselves and others exorbitant salaries.

Each of the four arrested council members was making about $100,000 a year for their part-time service. Velez was making only about $8,000 a year. Since becoming aware of the city's troubles he has decided to take no salary for his service on the council.

Also arrested last month were former City Manager Robert Rizzo, former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and former council members George Cole and Victor Bello.

When numerous perks like vacation, insurance and other benefits were added to his $787,637 salary, Rizzo's total compensation package from Bell was about $1.5 million a year.

Artiga told The Associated Press Monday he was resigning immediately in "the best interests of the people of Bell, my family and the church." He is free on bail pending an Oct. 21 arraignment.

Artiga, who joined the council two years ago, has denied any wrongdoing but acknowledged he didn't pay enough attention to what was going on and shouldn't have accepted his large salary.

"I know that with the help of God, people will see that justice will prevail. People will see the truth," he said.

Artiga, pastor at the Bell Community Church, had previously supported a campaign to recall himself and the other three from office, even signing his own recall petition. He declined to resign at that time, however, saying that would allow the remaining council members to appoint his successor.

His attorney, George Mgdesyan, told the Los Angeles Times, which first reported Artiga's resignation, that the pastor now needs to focus on the charges against him.

"We completely welcome his resignation and we think it's a step in the right direction," Cristina Garcia, a spokeswoman for the group leading the recall, the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, told The Associated Press.

Garcia said her group is urging the other three council members to follow Artiga's example and also resign. She added that they shouldn't appoint a replacement for Artiga.

"There's no trust in any of those council members' decisions, so I think anyone they appoint would be viewed by the community as antagonistic," she said.

© 2010 The Associated Press.

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