Residents of the scandal-plagued city of Bell gasped in shock and disbelief Monday as state auditors told them their political leaders mismanaged tens of millions of dollars of the modest city's money, using much of it to pay themselves enormous salaries.
The auditors spoke at a hearing called by state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, who said he wanted to give residents of the working-class city of 40,000 a full accounting of what had happened.
Some 300 residents sat quietly in a school auditorium, listening politely as auditors from the state Controller's office said Bell officials had collected $6.8 million over the past three years by doing such things as illegally raising their property taxes, sewer assessment fees and business license fees.
The auditors said Bell officials also took money earmarked for street repairs and affordable housing and used much of it to pay themselves their huge salaries.
Among other things, they were told that:
- Ousted City Manager Robert Rizzo, who had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million, gave himself an interest-free loan of $93,000, then paid it back with money the City Council put into his retirement fund.
- Rizzo made $1.5 million in loans from the city's general fund available to numerous city employees, who were allowed to use accrued vacation time to pay it back - at an interest rate of 0.5 percent.
- The city's six highest paid administrators had a combined annual salary of $6 million.
- Four of the City Council's five members were paid more than $100,000 a year.
Although the Controller's office had released the information in two earlier separate reports, receiving it in its totality Monday seemed to take many people aback. The office plans to release two more audits of Bell in the weeks ahead.
"I was shocked. It's absolutely outrageous. They were just paying each other with our money," said Lydia Barrios, who has lived in Bell for more than 30 years.
Rizzo, the four City Council members and four other former Bell officials have been charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney with misappropriating $5.5 million in public funds.
Three of those council members, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and Councilman George Mirabal, are the subject of a March 8 recall election. The fourth, Councilman Luis Artiga was also targeted for recall but has resigned, and a special election to replace him has been scheduled for March 8.
None of the officials was present at Monday's hearing and, unlike several City Council meetings in recent months where officials have been insulted and told to resign, the crowd remained calm throughout. Afterward several rose to thank De La Torre for calling the hearing.
Several people also said they had recently received tax refunds demanded by the state Controller's office.
The salary scandal became known in July when the Los Angeles Times received the officials' salaries under a California Public Records Act request and published them.
Several local residents have said they tried to get that information themselves but were ignored. At least one person was given false information, according to the district attorney's criminal complaint.
Part of Monday's two-hour hearing was given over to an explanation of how to make such public records requests.
© 2010 The Associated Press.